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Guide to Research a Charity Before Donating

Virginia has been a university English instructor for over 20 years. She specializes in helping people write essays faster and easier.

Why Research Before Giving?

Ever felt compelled to give after an emotional appeal? Anyone who has time or money to give has an important decision to make. No one person can effectively impact all organizations, so we have to choose. Too often, we give our time, money, and talents to the organization which either gets to us first or has the best marketing strategy. How do you make sure that your giving makes an impact? Do your research first. This article tells you how and links to the resources you need.


How to Decide

My husband and I donate at least 15% of our income to charities. Most of the college students I teach are also involved in giving and volunteering. For the past five years, I've guided my students in evaluating charities and writing up their research. Here are some of the questions we ask:

  1. What is the problem the charity is trying to solve? Is this an important problem to solve?
  2. Do they have an effective program for addressing the problem?
  3. Is the charity organized effectively and efficiently?
  4. How well do they spend the money they get?
  5. Can volunteers serve a meaningful role in this organization?
  6. Do they have a way of measuring whether they make an impact?

Sources of Charity Information

Chart complied by VirginiaLynne based on six years of researching charities with college students.

sourcewhat it tells youadvantages and disadvantages

Charity's website

history, vision, goals, program, success

information on the website is biased and aimed towards soliciting donations and volunteers

National Organization on that Issue or Problem

background of issue and different ways people have solved it, may have research and links to other similar organizations

not all issues have a national organization, may be biased

News or Magazines

current events and investigations into that organization and the problem it solves

may be biased for or against the organization, may not have full or accurate information

Academic journals

studies and reports on the effectiveness of an organization at solving a problem

many organizations do not have academic studies done on them, studies may be small, conclusions from studies may be limited, novel approaches are harder to study, studies can only measure tangible results like financial impact or better health

Financial Accountability Websites

how the charity uses money, whether they are transparent with finances and other information

data collected from the charity, small charities may not quality for accreditation

Philanthopy Journals

accountability of charity and evaluation of how well it solves problem

limited accessability to these journals without a subscription, only some charities (mostly larger,ones) are investigated

Site visit and/or Interview

you get a chance to see for yourself what the charity does and ask questions that are not answered on the website

not all charities welcome visits from researchers, some may not respond, charity may be difficult to visit if not close to you

Volunteer Interview or Blog

experiences of people working inside the organization

gives a closer look at the day to day operations, may be biased, only one person's perspective

Self-Evaluation of Best Practices

criteria for evaluating that type of charity

not all charities have a group or organization which has determined "best practices"

Government and UN websites

statistics about a problem and overviews about a problem

information is reliable but may be broad, may not be able to find information about the problem your charity solves

What makes a charity effective?

What makes a charity effective?

National Organizations

Another important resource for evaluation can be a national organization for the problem your organization is working with. Often these national organizations have set standards for good practices and also provide evidence for research which might be linked to their site.

You can find these organizations by searching Google for "National Organization (or Agency) for (whatever the problem is)." "International Organization for (problem). Some of these organizations are government websites, which might be helpful; however, you are probably looking for a website which does not have You may need to look through the Google search terms to see a better way to search or to look through a couple of pages to find what you are looking for. Here are some examples:


Criteria-Based Evaluation: Some charities and research institutions or government agencies have researched to try to determine what is the "best policy" for a particular type of solution such as a food bank or mentorship program. If you find this sort of list it can help you develop a set of criteria for examining your organization. Below are a few examples. You can search for this sort of information for your charity's problem by searching "Evaluation criteria for..." or "How to evaluate a...."

Looking at an Organization's Website

  1. Examine what the charity does with the money they get. How much goes towards programs? How much is used in fundraising? How much goes to the administration?
  2. Look at the salary of the CEO. Does it seem reasonable? If the salary is high, is it because the company is located in an expensive place or needs to attract a manager with lots of experience?
  3. Look at how well this charity matches up to standards set by the website and if it does not meet the highest standards find out why. Do you think there are ways this charity needs to improve?
  4. Look at any comments made by individuals or the charity itself about goals, effectiveness, and accountability.
  5. In using these charity evaluations, you might want to check out the article "The Rating's Game" listed below which gives you the pros and cons of these charity rating systems and also provides you with other ideas for how to evaluate the charity you are interested in.

The Rating's Game: An article written by a Stanford professor gives a good perspective on how these Charity Rating Services do and don't work to evaluate the effectiveness of a non-profit. He suggests that some of these services focus more on financial accountability (which is easier to measure) than on how well the charity does what it plans to do, or how well the charity has analyzed the problem and come up with a solution that will work.


One of the important aspects of evaluating a charity is deciding how well they use the finances they get, and how they compare to other non-profits which do similar work. The following websites gather information from charities and other sources to help you do this evaluation. Some of this information is presented in graphs and tables.

  1. Charity Navigator: Probably the most-used charity evaluation website, Charity Navigator has some critics who say the site doesn't consider effectiveness as much as it does financial accountability. However, this is a standard evaluation site that should be considered if your charity is listed.
  2. Better Business Bureau Charity: One of the main reviewers of charities, the BBB gives financial information and how finances are used.
  3. Great Non-Profits: A helpful site that lets you search by your local area (on left of the screen it shows links for towns near you) for non-profit information. You can also submit your own review.
  4. Charity Watch: Evaluates charities and gives them ratings. Gives a list of top charities and gives A through F grades of charities.
  5. GiveWell: Includes a topical list of charities to search through. They give guidelines on how to evaluate a charity. These are sorted in a helpful way by the problem the charity tries to solve. Also gives the best charities in the U.S. and Internationally who try to solve that problem.

Statistics About Problems

To understand the problem your charity is trying to solve, it is important to look at statistics and research studies. Luckily, this information is easily available not only through library resources but directly on government websites. Here are some excellent resources:

  • U.S. Census Bureau: Gives facts about states and counties and compares one country to the national and state average in terms of income, poverty, and other facts. See the left-hand side of the page for looking at a map and quick facts.
  • U.S. Government Information: Here is a topical list of publications, statistics, and information compiled and provided by the U.S. government. You can look at information about education, health, disability services, disasters and emergencies, housing, jobs and unemployment, and many other topics.
  • United Nations: Check out the "Our Work" section of the website to see information about the UN's progress on Global Issues, Human Rights, Humanitarian Aid, and Sustainable Development & Climate Action. The Global Rights page has information on Africa, Aging, AIDS, Atomic Energy, Big Data, Children, Poverty, Migration, Population, Refugees, and many more topics.

News Sources

Many non-profit organizations are written about by newspapers and magazines. Often investigative reporters do an excellent job of explaining the organization, giving examples of how the organization helps, and also evaluating how well they are doing their job.

Charity Website: One way to find news sources is to look at the website of the charity and see if they have links to newspapers, magazines, or television reports on their organization. If these links are not published by the organization but by an independent news organization, they can make a good source of information.

Local Newspaper or NPR station: Frequently, the local newspaper of the town or the National Public Radio station may do a story on these charities. Find the local newspaper of the town the charity is located in and search for articles.

National News: Larger charities may be written about by larger newspapers and news magazines. Some of these news organizations have a section about non-profit work. They also might be a resource to find other organizations which do the same thing that you can use in evaluating your organization. Therefore, you can search for the name of your organization, but also search for non-profits working on that problem (example: non-profit clean water Africa).

  • NPR: National Public Radio has many different topics relating to problems. They have both audio radio reports to listen to as well as many transcripts. NPR often tackles issues not discussed as often in traditional media.
  • Christianity Today: Evangelical magazine which frequently profiles social justice work, particularly with the poor. Often articles will lead you to other sources.
  • New York Times: major newspapers like the Times have sections devoted to investigative reporting on charities and other non-profits.
  • Time Magazine: News magazines may have more in-depth portrayals of charities that they cover. Look mostly for larger national or international charities in this source.


Sometimes the story of a charity's effectiveness can come from the individuals who have been impacted. Compassion International is one charity that my students consistently have evaluated to be one of the best at both using funds that are given and having a significant impact on both individuals and their community. The video below shows why.

Compassion International

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on November 13, 2014:

Thanks so much askformore--I am getting ready to teach my class on this subject and was just reviewing this article yesterday and was quite happy to see that I had added a lot of information the last time I taught this. Since doing this article, I have been much more careful about my own donations and have spent time checking out where my money is going.

askformore lm on November 13, 2014:

Thank you for a great hub. Thumbs up! Your list of organizations and your very instructive information will be a great help for many.