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How to choose the right charities to support

NEW YORK — This past Veterans Day, as I reflected on the bravery of those who served our country, I also thought about the number of charities that purport to help our heroes. Did you know that there are more than 40,000 separate charities that help veterans? While the vast majority of charities out there are doing important work, periodically one reads in the news about scams where people with good intentions make gifts to poorly run or fraudulent organizations. As we enter the busy year-end giving season, it’s important to know how to research and evaluate charitable organizations.


One thing I do in my role as director of funder services and education at the Jewish Community Foundation is to help ensure that those who have Donor Advised Funds (charitable giving accounts) select reputable, IRS-recognized charities to support. I serve as a reference librarian regarding nonprofit organizations and their needs and I get great satisfaction in helping our fundholders discover the right organizations to match their interests. 

Foundation fundholder and community volunteer Ann Stern describes my work, saying, “Whether you want to give to a particular group of agencies or you have a specific agency in mind, the Foundation can give you the research, they can tell you current things about that agency, you can use all of their resources, which are many, to help you do the best job that you can.” 

Even if you don’t have a Donor Advised Fund at the Foundation, there are online resources to help determine if you are supporting a financially reputable organization. To learn if a charity is managing its financials well, websites like Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and Guidestar (Guidestar.org) are good resources that rate different charities based on their financial accountability and transparency.  

These websites review and help interpret organizations’ IRS Form 990, which all 501(c)(3) organizations are required to file each year. By viewing this information, one can learn about an organization’s revenues, expenses including executive salaries, board leadership, and mission statement. Charity Navigator and Guidestar evaluate the information to see which organizations are spending the most money on delivering services. They also double check to see that an independent accountant has examined the financial information provided by a charity. Both sites have helpful rating systems. For example, Jewish Family Services of Kansas City receives four stars from Charity Navigator (the highest rating) and a silver rating from Guidestar. These ratings show that JFS’s reporting is accurate and they are a trustworthy organization.  

The financial piece is only one part of analyzing a good charity. Financials don’t tell you about impact or effectiveness. For that type of information, you may want to look at an organization’s website or pick up the phone and call its staff or a board member. 

Look at the organization’s annual report to see how many people are being helped. Annual reports are often filled with wonderful impact stories that describe the effect of charitable gifts on real people’s lives.

Other things to consider are:

• How old is an organization? Sometimes it takes a while for an organization to see its impact. Conversely, a new nonprofit may arise to take care of a specific unmet community need. 

• Who is on the board? How long are the board terms? If you are giving locally and recognize the names of known civic individuals who are respected in the community, it is likely that the board has the experience to make sure that the organization is effectively run. You can also check to see that the board does not have a conflict of interest, or that diverse points of view are present. 

• What is the tenure of their executive director or other staff? Frequent turnover of staff may diminish the organization’s ability to deliver services. 

Most importantly, never lose sight of why you are giving. You don’t have to give just because someone asks you to support their favorite charity. You may choose to save your dollars to make a bigger gift to support an issue that interests you. 

For more information about how the Foundation can help you achieve your charitable giving goals, contact me at 913-327-4618 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To hear what our fundholders, like Ann Stern, have to say about giving smarter through the Foundation, visit www.jcfkc.org/SmarterGiving.