Bottom Line: The dire famine situation in Africa, especially Somalia, has been pushed from the headlines it deserves by the Debt Ceiling Debate and financial situation in both US and Europe. Melissa, an 11 year old, is still paying attention, and wanted help putting her $10 gift into action. Her generosity inspired me to research the options and donate the money to Concern Worldwide US. While I was there, I made a gift of my own. Thanks, Melissa. Your example is inspiring.
Today, one of my church friends told me a heart-warming story. Her granddaughter Melissa was reading about the famine in Somalia. When she finished reading the entire article, she ran to her bedroom, opened up her piggy bank, and came back with $10, which she handed to her grandmother and said “Nana, I know you’ll be able to do something to help them with this.” I admired the young girl’s generosity, as this was a large gift from someone of her age, and her grandmother and I talked about the best way to put it to use.
One option was to use our church giving (United Church of Christ’s One Great Hour of Sharing) as an intermediary for this gift. Normally, I’d consider that a very good option. For special appeals, 100% of the donations go straight to the cause, plus through the network of local churches and partnerships on the ground, they often have the relationships with disaster relief organizations already established, so money can be put to work very quickly. In this case, however, the urgency is high, and since our local church hasn’t made this a special appeal, a gift in the offering plate would likely sit for weeks or months before it made it to its destination.
Instead, I thought an online donation would result in the money getting there more quickly. I offered to research organizations and make the gift on Melissa’s behalf.
I started at CharityNavigator, which evaluates different non-profits to determine how efficient they are. They review the IRS 990 forms that non-profits submit, and determine how much of the money goes to fund raising and administrative costs, and how much goes to “program” (the work directly supporting the cause). They have other metrics for the growth and capacity of each organization, and boil it all down to a four-star scale. I was surprised that some of the organizations that I respect had earned only 3 stars (Oxfam America, 14% fund raising expenses pulled it down…; World Food Program USA 8% fund-raising, and a negative overall asset level, their site also mentioned that they used a UK clearing bank, which might take an additional cut from your gift) or even 2 stars (Church World Services 11% fund raising, but apparently hurt more due to their anemic growth over the past years).
So, instead of assuming that I knew a good place to go, I searched for charities that matched the keywords “Africa famine”. Twenty search results came back. I compared several (a nice feature of Charity Navigator, worth doing the free registration) and then visited the websites of a few of the results that had a 4-star rating. Confident that Charity Navigator had screened out the organizations that weren’t good stewards of the money, I focused on assessing whether I thought these were effective in delivering the program and communicating their results. Given that the situation in Somalia is dire, I expected that an organization that was serious about helping would have special web pages and resources linked from their main page about it. (UCC’s OGHS appeal page was a bit harder to find) Recent, frequent updates helped build credibility, as well as evidence that they had been working in the region and were well informed and well-staffed, and presented that information to donor prospects.
Ultimately, I selected Concern Worldwide US. Its 4-star rating included a less than 3% fund-raising expense, modest administrative expenses (3.4%), a strong assessment of their capacity, and a salary for their executive director that was under $100K. Their website also impressed me with the direct link to a nice summary of the situation and their expertise for handling it. I donated directly to them via Kintera, and inspired by Melissa’s generosity, multiplied her gift by 10.
The runner up organization I considered was Mercy Corps. They’re a much larger organization (annual budget $245M vs. Concern Worldwide US $21M), and also got a 4-star rating, but their administrative expenses were a bit higher than Concern Worldwide US’s. If you wanted to support a larger organization that might have greater scale to make a larger difference, Mercy Corps would be a good choice.