What is an NGO
What is an NGO? The acronym NGO stands for non-governmental organization. With only slightly more specificity, an NGO is any organization, usually non-profit, that operates independently of a government.  Contrary to common usage, the NGO title does not necessarily imply the organization works abroad; NGOs can be local, national, or international.

But apart from these literal definitions, what unique roles do NGOs serve that government aid organizations and corporations do not?

The innumerable NGOs that are working on international humanitarian issues suggest that NGOs can adapt quickly and respond to changing needs faster than government organizations which require executive and electoral approval for action. The Global Journal published a list of the top 100 most influential and effective NGOs, acknowledging famous groups such as OxFam, PATH, and Medicins Sans Frontiers.

These groups’ acclaim comes from consistent and well-organized delivery of critically important services such as medical care, environmental education and advocacy, and human rights protection.

But all NGOs are different and some are met with intense criticism for lack of transparency in budgeting or effectual action. When donating money or looking for work in the NGO world, it is always important to do your research about how much of the group’s budget goes to administrative costs and how much goes directly to the cause you care about. The website Charity Navigator is a useful resource for this.

Another important critique of NGOs is that all too often organizations staffed with Americans and Europeans come into developing nations with action plans that don’t fit the local context and end up adversely affecting their target populations. This, however, is not an inherent flaw of NGOs but rather a symptom of failing to acknowledge the importance of local expertise within the NGO framework.

Because NGO funding commonly comes from developed nations, a particularly effective model for NGOs includes using local in-country staff to plan and implement programs on the ground while working with an international board focused on fundraising, outreach, and strategic group planning.

It would be untrue to claim that NGOs are immune to political influence simply because they are not directly connected to governments; NGOs’ funding and even daily operations are subject to political approval.

For example, NGOs working to bring amnesty to political refugees will often face intense political adversity, and even violence during their in-country work. But unlike government organizations, NGOs typically have more flexibility to defy a political status quo to pursue what they believe to be important social change.

– Shelly Grimaldi

Sources: Grant Space, Miratelinc
Photo: The Design Inspiration

People who want to donate to charity are often overwhelmed by the number of causes and organizations that are working to make the world a better place.

Take for instance the ice bucket challenge, which has dominated social media for months. This fundraising campaign has provided the ALS Association, a charity involved in the research of Lou Gerhig’s disease, with an additional $3 million in donations. What has caused this influx in donations to ALS?

Research performed by Giving What We Can, a global poverty nonprofit, found that half of every dollar the association raised would have been donated toward charity. Charities are forced to compete for people’s attention and money, both of which are finite.

As a donor, how is one to decide which charity gets their money?

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research investigated who donates more to charity and why they do so. The study found that people with a high sense of morality donated more, particularly if they empathized with the recipients.

Whether people felt empathy or not depended on how much they felt the recipient of aid was responsible for their own plight. Researchers also found that empathy was malleable. Participants were less likely to give to drug or alcohol rehab efforts until they were asked to discuss their own pasts. Instances of immoral behavior or wrongdoing increased their willingness to give.

While the number of charities can be daunting to a donor, the key to deciding which one to choose often lies in one’s own values. Empathy, sympathy and common beliefs often lead donors to specific charities which they can relate to. Knowing your own values will help narrow down the search.

There are many resources online for investigating charities and finding ones that match your guidelines. Guidestar, Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance all provide analyses of charities.

All three organizations look at where a charity’s money goes. They look at tax forms and spending reports to see what ratio is spent on the cause the charity is advocating for versus how much is spent on other costs. They will also help you find organizations based on your interests.

Guidestar attempts to stay neutral, only posting the information. Charity Navigator gives charities a one to four star rating, with zero stars given in extreme cases. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance gives charities that meet its criteria the option to purchase the rights to display the BBB’s seal of approval.

According to the New York Times, Charity Navigator is the most user-friendly, although Guidestar is a neutral source and the BBB has a pragmatic approach.

You can use all of these resources to research and compare organizations of interest to you. If a charity aligns with your own personal vision and values, that charity might be the best fit.

A helpful method is:

  1. Find your cause.
  2. Research a few top options.
  3. Find the best, most effective match for your beliefs.

The ALS Association may be the best fit for what you want to invest your money in, but doing the research first allows you to make an informed decision about where your money is going and what it is actually doing for the cause.

Monica Roth

Sources: Tech Times, Charity Navigator, Guidestar, New York Times, QZ, Health News Review, Mondaq
Photo: Flickr

american refugee committee
The American Refugee Committee was founded in 1979 to combat and address the needs of the millions of refugees around the world. Today, the efforts of ARC reach 2.5 million people of the 39 million displaced in the world. In particular, the ARC aids those in the countries of Thailand, Pakistan, Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Rwanda.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

In today’s modern world, various types of conflicts and natural disasters have resulted in 10 million refugees and 29 million internally displaced persons (IDP). The difference between the two is that a refugee has crossed an international border, while an IDP still remains in their home country. Regardless of their title, both groups are in deep need of protection, food, water and shelter – and this is often achieved through international law.

A notable aspect of the ARC is their Rapid Response Teams (RRT), which is a group ready to be dispatched on short notice to areas that have been recently struck with a type of crisis that may result in human displacement. The RRT can leave as fast as within 48 hours of receiving contact. Often times, such crises are not necessarily predictable and are deemed emergencies and urgent situations that need immediate attention. The RRTs scope the initial conditions and report the most pressing needs, partner with other agencies for effective humanitarian aid and ultimately provide true relief to those affected by the crisis.

Having RRTs has been advantageous to the ARC’s goals and commitments. For instance, in 2008 when a calamitous cyclone tore through Myanmar – which exceeded over 22,000 deaths and at least 41,000 missing – ARC sent off a RRT to the area. The ARC has had a team in Thailand (which borders Myanmar) for almost two decades and are consequently more familiar with the region’s language, culture and geography. Unfortunately, the Myanmar military government was slow to respond in granting visas to workers. However, the investments that ARC has sown into the regions shows much potential to bear fruit in the future when emergencies such as this happens.

The American Refugee Committee prides itself on possessing great financial responsibility. According to Charity Navigator, the ARC has received a score of 63.67 out of 70 points. The score is taken as an average of its financial score and its accountability & transparency score, of which the ARC received 60.06 and 70 out of 70, respectively. Nearly 89.4 percent of the ARC’s expenses go toward its programs – reflecting its efficiency and transparency.

– Christina Cho

Sources: ARC Thailand, Charity Navgiator, MinnPost
Photo: Minn Post

Charity Navigator
Charity Navigator is a preeminent non-profit watchdog organization well-known for its consistent and easily understood ratings. With the impending rollout of Charity Navigator 3.0, the organization aims to set the bar even higher by adding new criteria to their formulas.

Charity Navigator focuses on the heavyweights of US-based philanthropy. The charities they evaluate must receive at least $500,000 from the public annually, and their total annual revenue must be over $1 million. They must be public institutions that are tax-exempt and file a Form 990, from which Charity Navigator gathers significant information.

Currently, Charity Navigator uses two primary criteria to generate their ratings: financial health, and accountability and transparency.

Financial health is evaluated based on financial efficiency and capacity. Measures of financial efficiency judge a charity’s management of expenses throughout the year. These measure include fundraising efficiency, or the cost of generating $1 in donations, as well as percentages of total functional expenses spent on programs, administration, and fundraising. Expected percentages vary based on the type of charity. For example, museums are expected to spend more on overhead expenses and less on programs than most non-profits.

Meanwhile, financial capacity is a measure of the charity’s ability to maintain its work even when faced with difficult times. Indicators of strong financial capacity include consistent growth in revenue and programs, and a high working capital ratio. Growth of both revenue and programs is necessary for a charity to effect long-term, systematic change. Consistent development in both areas also instills confidence in givers by sustaining public support for charities’ work.

Charity Navigator calculates growth in revenue and program expenses using data from the four most recent fiscal years. Working capital ratio refers to the length of time a charity could survive financially in the absence of new revenue. This is a reflection of the charity’s preparedness for downward economic trends.

The second primary criterion currently used by Charity Navigator is accountability and transparency. Accountability refers to an agency’s willingness to explain its actions, especially financial ones, to its stakeholders. Meanwhile, transparency refers to an agency’s willingness to ensure the availability of critical data concerning the organization. Charity Navigator gains information for this criterion from two sources: the charity’s Form 990 and their website.

The Form 990 includes data points such as the presence or absence of an independent board, misappropriation of assets, independently audited financial statements, and payments to CEOs and board members. Charity Navigator expects organizations’ websites to list key staff and board members, publish audited financial statements and their Form 990, and have a clear and easily accessible donor privacy policy.

Charity Navigator is in the process of creating a third criterion: results reporting. This new step is meant to emphasize the need for results-driven work. The additional facet of evaluation would focus primarily on “the way charities come to know, use and share their results with stakeholders including donors.”

Specifically, Charity Navigator aspires to examine five elements of results reporting: consistency of spending with stated mission, reasonability of charities’ goals and their intent to measure their progress, validation from outside organizations, feedback from beneficiaries, and regularly published evaluation reports. By adding these criteria to their formula, Charity Navigator aims to encourage charities to demonstrate their efficacy by collecting more data and making that data readily available to the public.

To ensure fairness and consistency, Charity Navigator will not use this data in their evaluations until the necessary information has been gathered for every charity currently in their databases. Given crucial funding and other resources, Charity Navigator expects this effort to be completed in 2016.

Katie Fullerton

Sources: Non-Profit Quarterly, Charity Navigator

Ever wonder how large charities can get and how much they can impact the world we live in? Charity Navigator has provided a glimpse into the top ten enormous charitable organizations that operate today. The ranking scale they use is out of 70. Here is a look at the top three.

  1. United Nations Foundation: UNF comes in at 69.04 on the overall charity scale. Working to connect citizens around the world to the United Nations, UNF provides fiscal services for the programs that the United Nations offers. It is also the main advocacy and support system for the United Nation’s ideas and beliefs. The total revenue of the charity comes in at $192,737,803.
  2. The Conservation Fund: The Conservation Fund comes in at 69.32 on the overall charity scale. Dedicated to protecting important pieces of American land, such as historical landmarks, parks, and reservations, CF has saved more than 7 million acres of land across the nation. The total revenue of the charity comes in at $242,376,138.
  3. Direct Relief: The highest rated charity on Charity Navigator comes in at 69.91, a nearly perfect score. Direct Relief works to improve health worldwide through programs, emergency preparations, disease awareness, and the improvement of health systems. The total revenue of the charity comes in at $405,035,176.

It is interesting to view just how large the top three charities are and the immense impact that these charities have. Without the amount of money they raise and the support they provide, it would be a very different world we live in today.

– William Norris

Sources: Charity Navigator United Nations Foundation The Conservation Fund Direct Relief
Photo: Direct Relief

Many foreign aid organizations and donors provide temporary aid in the form of food, supplies, or direct cash donations. Heifer International is a different kind of organization; Heifer works to provide livestock for impoverished and hungry families so that they will be able to sustain themselves rather than depending on temporary aid. In order to help these people to help themselves, cows, goats, chickens, bees, llamas, and plenty of other options are given in terms of livestock to be donated. These animals help to provide both sustenance and stability to families in need. Agricultural products that the family does not put to use, such as milk, eggs, or honey can also be sold at market for extra income.

Heifer’s goal in this is to ultimately create sustainability for families to allow them to then further their opportunities in life such as provide for education and comfortable living. One of their hopes is also that as one family or group advances in the community that they will share their gift with others around them, allowing the community as a whole to become self-sufficient. With gifts of livestock comes training from Heifer employees, ensuring that the families will make the most of their new additions.

The organization’s projects span the globe, from Cambodia to China to India and Honduras. Their goals with specific projects vary, but include empowering and education of women, environmental conservation, and natural disaster response. A major success story involves a Filipino farmer, Rogelio Abes Jr., who took advantage of Heifer’s gifts and knowledge. Not only did he expand his own farm and income, he shared his livestock and farming techniques with others in the community, and inspired others to rise above poverty through hard work and generosity.

In terms of financials and accountability, Charity Navigator gives Heifer three out of four stars. The organization is entirely transparent with their records and policies, and more than 70% of their income goes to program expenses, while 20% goes to fundraising expenses. Only 6.4% goes toward administrative expenses while the CEO earns .03% of expenses. The only financial issue that arises is the disparity between revenue and program expenses in the past few years, where revenue is significantly higher than program expenses.

On the whole, however, Heifer is working hard against hunger and poverty in many different ways, from school education programs to their Read to Feed initiative that encourages children to read in order to fundraise money for the organization.  Their goals for sustainability seem to be the right direction for food aid to be headed in – while temporary aid can be helpful, it can also breed dependency, and the most important thing is to get people out of situations of poverty and hunger and allow them to be self-sufficient.

– Sarah Rybak

Sources: Heifer International, Charity Navigator
Photo: Heifer International