Holiday giving: How to choose a charity
New tools help givers, and those in need, find answers.
In June 2006, when Wendy Maholic learned that her husband, a master sergeant, had been killed in Afghanistan, her thoughts turned to her 10-year-old son. As she struggled with her grief, she wondered how to help fill the hole left by the loss of his father.Skip to next paragraph
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As months passed, Mrs. Maholic learned of a small, up-and-coming charity in Colorado called Knights of Heroes, which provides free, all-inclusive summer camps and long-term mentoring programs for sons of fallen soldiers.
A week of fishing, canoeing, and horseback riding with other children and adult male role models – especially ones who ostensibly knew what Andrew was going through – seemed perfect, but Maholic was apprehensive. The camp was located in Colorado Springs, Colo. She and Andrew were in Fort Bragg, N.C. No one in her immediate circle of friends and family had heard of the organization.
It seemed promising. The camp even offered to arrange for mothers and sisters to be lodged nearby during the
session. But she needed more. Like many parents in search of advice, she went online and discovered what she needed – and a new way to evaluate charities.
With the explosion of social networking and user-generated online content, a new crop of websites promises to use similar techniques to help donors, volunteers, and clients assess nonprofits. In some, reviewers are asked to provide commentary on their personal experiences; others poll constituents. It's not fail-safe. But the approach arms donors with information that goes beyond the financial information provided by traditional charity-rating services. It also exposes charities to far greater scrutiny, which some nonprofits have struggled to warm up to.
"It gives you a great feel for what [the experience] is really like," says Maholic, who used a service called GreatNonprofits to check out the charity. "I really got the sense that [Knights of Heroes] would treat them like their own [children]."
Her son, Andrew, has attended two camps with the charity and now receives weekly calls from his mentor. "Andrew's mentor can really relate to him," she adds. "He's been there and knows that sometimes you don't have to say anything."
Previously, donors have relied heavily on GuideStar and other firms that decipher financial data required by the Internal Revenue Service. "While financial data certainly has its place, donors and volunteers should use their heart and their head in making decisions," says Perla Ni, chief executive officer of GreatNonprofits, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "No one has a better perspective on a charity than those who experience it."
GreatNonprofits was conceived in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. "We were looking for local nonprofits that were helping local residents of Biloxi, Miss., but found that information was hard to come by," recalls Ms. Ni, who was the publisher of Stanford Social Innovation Review at the time. "So we sent someone to walk the streets and ask residents which nonprofits were doing the best work." That basic idea of gathering opinions from those served became the basis of GreatNonprofits. Since then, the service has grown to rate some 2,000 charities. Some 50,000 visitors view the site each month, according to the group.