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Real Donors: Why Some Charities Get Added or Removed From Our Giving List

My wife and I donate to 10 charities. We have been doing this for the past 14 years. Each year, between December 25 and December 31, we decide which charities will get donations in the upcoming year. For the most part, the list of charities we give to stays the same, but we re-assess every year. And about every two years we revise our list – add a charity or remove one. Here is how we make that decision:

Why some charities get removed from the list

1. They significantly shift their mission so it is no longer something we want to support.

2. They no longer appear worthy. The criteria we consider are:

a. They demonstrate incompetence in delivering their mission. Everyone makes mistakes and
we are not brutally tough, but sometimes an organization starts to behave in a manner that seems bizarre. We have observed that this is often a result of an unclear mission that leads to conflict between the board and staff.

b. They are not supporting the cause efficiently. Expense ratios go up and down. We don’t have hard and fast rules. But sometimes overhead can get ridiculous. But for sure, if 86% of an organization’s revenue is going to overhead, they lose our support.

c. They demonstrate incompetence in managing their finances. Once again, we realize that problems can arise anywhere. But when programs are being cancelled and we receive desperate requests for more funds, there had better be a really good explanation.

d. Their fundraising is redundant. This may seem perverse: punishing success. But if a charity has already raised enough funds for all its needs for the next three years, we feel that something is awry. Either they should be expanding their programming or reducing their fundraising efforts.

How charities get added to the list

So how does a charity get added to our list? Over the course of the year we are bombarded with requests for donations: email, phone, and paper mail. Those that are potentially interesting get added to a list for consideration. We discuss, read websites, and occasionally other materials. Generally speaking, charities get added by doing an exceptionally good job at planning, delivering their mission, and reporting back.

One time we added a charity – a hospital – to our list in the middle of the year. This is unusual, but the appeal was unusually compelling. Here’s what happened.

My wife had to have surgery on her knee. We went to a small hospital close to our cottage in the country. We choose this hospital because the surgeon could get an operating theatre at this small hospital in a couple of weeks, compared to about eight months at the big city hospital.

The experience was wonderful. From admissions through to recovery room, all the staff were friendly and competent.

A couple of weeks later the hospital’s foundation asked for a donation. We have seen these
many times before, but this one was different. It was not fancy. The layout was competent but not flashy. There was no expensive printing. Nothing unusual there. The “ask” indicated that the foundation was trying to raise $5 million. Nothing unusual there either.

But here is what stood out. There was a detailed list of how the money was going to be spent. There were a couple of $1 million imaging machines, but then there was a page-long list of what the hospital needed (e.g. two surgical trays at $20,000 each, for a total of $40,000).

This organization was showing us that they were completely in control, knew exactly what they needed the funds for and how the funds were going to be spent. They were not just asking for money with an implied “trust us, we’ll use it well” promise. They were raising money for a specific purpose (actually about 30 specific purposes, which were detailed).

It is very unusual to see a plan in advance, and be able to decide whether it is something
we wanted to donate to. We were pleasantly surprised and decided that we did want to contribute.

For more information on restricted giving and tips from the fabulous Gail Perry, non-profit
consultant and author of Fired-Up Fundraising, read Winning Donors’ Trust with Restricted Giving.

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