Recent scandals have cast a pall over the charitable sector. But if you’re wondering about the wisdom of making a donation to some established charity in your city, don’t be fooled by the media hype. My guess is that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, mailing that check will do your community substantial good. Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve visited hundreds of community-based nonprofits and examined their financial statements and audits (this is what people who work at foundations sometimes do). In my experience, most of these organizations are scrupulously honest. Their staffs work very long hours for very short pay. They know the communities they serve and serve them effectively using very modest means. They multiply the value of your donation by enlisting the help of volunteers who donate countless hours of their time for charitable work.
It’s always painful for me to read surveys that show a lack of trust in this country’s nonprofit sector. A recent Harris poll, for example, reported that 27 percent of adults somewhat or strongly disagree with the statement that ‘Most charitable organizations are honest and ethical in their use of donated funds’; close to a third believe the nonprofit sector in America is moving in the wrong direction.
High profile scandals in the charitable sector undermine the public’s trust. But this isn’t the whole story. America’s charities—especially smaller community-based organizations—do a poor job of communicating how effective they are at feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and healing the sick. Generally overworked and overwhelmed by the demand for their organizations’ services, nonprofit leaders underinvest in their organizations’ communications capacity. Perhaps if they invested more, they’d draw fresh criticism for spending donated funds on public relations rather than on direct charitable work—who knows?
The declining trust in America’s charities is especially worrisome because as government continues its epic retreat from funding essential human services, charities will need to make a stronger case to would-be donors.