This piece is about how to make smart decisions when lending your support to a charity.
To get there, we’ll use as a jumping off point the story, much in the news the past ten days, of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® charity no-go’ing, and then un-no-go’ing, its funding of some of the breast cancer screenings provided at Planned Parenthood clinics throughout the country.
It’s been a fascinating story to watch unfold, hasn’t it? And, but of course, as does most everything in our modern world, it has a clear-cut financial health aspect to it. The financial health tie-in rests upon the notion that every dollar we spend is a vote for the way we want the world to be. It follows, then, that every dollar we give to a charity is also a vote for the way we want the world to be, doesn’t it? Indeed, the given dollar is a much more wide-open, much more freely-chosen dollar leaving our control than a spent dollar (just try getting your gas and electricity from someone other than your local utility and you’ll know what I mean . . . ), and in this way the given dollar is even more of a vote, freely and voluntarily directed at those to whom we think are most deserving of it.
Given Komen’s ubiquity in the breast cancer universe, then, as well as its huge scale, you have to wonder just how many folks are now, for the first time, wondering whether, in lending their support to Komen, they had badly miscast their vote — voted, instead, for the way they didn’t want the world to be.
Hmmm . . . .
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to smarten-up your voting. And it is to that topic that we now turn, beginning with a bit of background about Susan G. Komen and the charity named after her and built into a breast cancer powerhouse by her sister, Nancy Brinker.
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Susan G. Komen: The Woman and Her Sister
The name Susan G. Komen is one that many of us had never heard before last week. And of those of us who already knew the name, many of us knew the name only because we had participated, either as a participant or as a donor, in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure® or bought a product with one of those pink ribbons on it.
As it turns out, Susan Goodman Komen — the woman — is a somewhat illusive figure on the web (as is true of most people who died more than thirty years ago). She does have a (necessarily) posthumous Facebook page and, with a bit of searching, you can also unearth a single picture, showing Susan, side-by-side, with her sister, Nancy Brinker (nee Goodman).
As the story is told, Nancy, a few years after Susan’s death from breast cancer in 1980, founded the charity bearing her sister Susan’s name and then grew it, from scratch, into something that has had quite an impact in a lot of fields and on a lot of different levels — an impressive feat by any measure, and notwithstanding the legs-up and apparent good fortune Nancy might have enjoyed, and regardless of how you might feel about whether those impact were positive or negative.
That single picture on the web of Susan — the picture of her with Nancy — looks to be the official picture the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® charity uses. The picture shows both women positively beaming their sisterly love for one another, with Susan’s arm around Nancy’s shoulder, and with Nancy towering over Susan.
By contrast, pictures of Nancy Brinker these days speak, to me at least, of a very different person, over and above the obvious changes that time exacts upon all of us. You be the judge.
The Susan G. Komen for the Cure® Charity: Much in the News Right Now and Not in a Happy Way
For about ten days now we have all been hearing a lot about Komen, as we watched the charity experience a corporate public-reckoning surely on a par with those experienced by McNeil (the Tylenol scare) and Coca Cola (the New Cokerollout and roll-all-the-way-back-in) way back in the 1980s, and by Netflix (the pricing and Quikster blunders) way back just a few months ago in that bygone era of 2011. And, yes, let’s also include in this public-reckoning hall of in-fame the all-too-human Tiger Woods, together with whatever corporate arms through which he markets himself.
The Fall-Out from the Reckoning: Hard Come, Easy Go.
As the dust is starting to settle, we can surmise that something like half of the people who put their lot in with Komen in the past — either via participating or donating or by going out of their way to buy a pink-ribboned product — are now wondering if, given the revelations of the past week, they made a big mistake by giving to a charity they now know has views starkly different from their own.
Why half? I’m assuming here that (a) the country is pretty evenly divided on the abortion issue around which the brouhaha revolves (with the even-steven-ness depending a lot on how the issue is framed), and that (b) people on both sides of the issue feel very strongly about it (abortion is, after all, the biggie, isn’t it, for battle lines being drawn in the American socio-political sphere?) and (c) that whatever nuance, if any, might exist in the story and its interface with the abortion issue, the feelings are strong enough on both sides that the nuance is, for all practical purposes, irrelevant. Add all that up and what you get is Komen, with the making of a single decision, setting in motion the Komen vs. Planned Parenthood dustup that angered — deeply angered — half of its support base, thereby de-loyaling about half of that base. Ouch! Three decades in the making, and three days in the half-undoing.
Terry O’Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, goes much further: she thinks Komen will cease to existwithin five years. Time will tell . . .
The Main Topic: Being Smart About the Charities You Invite Into Your Life
So how can a person know what a charity is really up to — what it’s really like, and what it really, truly cares about? And, as a corollary, what can you do to decrease the likelihood that a charity you support over the years will one day let you down?
In addressing these questions and writing this email, I, via tight rope wire, do my best to take no political sides whatsoever — not because I have no opinion (I do, and in spite of my best efforts, I would be surprised if it didn’t show through here and there . . . ), but because the political aspects are irrelevant to the topic of how to be smart when lending your support to a charity — about how to make sure that you do not find out, years later, that you were supporting a charity that was doing something in the world that you find quite unattractive. Surely a rotten result, that.
So how do you go about being smart about this stuff?
The Two Main Online Sites that Rate Charities: CharityWatch and Charity Navigator
In yet another chapter in our recurring series called Ain’t-the-Internet-Grand, it should come as no surprise that a great place to start your smartening-up is via the dual dueling charity-ranking sites, CharityWatch and Charity Navigator (for brevity — yea right, I hear you say — and because in my experience it’s not very helpful, I leave out the Better Business Bureau site, part of which is devoted to charities).
Both CharityWatch and Charity Navigator are, themselves, charities, but, as explained below, they come across as different as night and day.
Charity Navigator: The (Self-Proclaimed) Biggest, and the More Useful of the Two Sites in Terms of Metrics
As of this writing, Charity Navigator opens its website-doors with a titlebar to its web page saying, “America’s Largest Charity Evaluator.” Now, I don’t know about you, but somehow a, “We’re the biggest” proclamation to an audience of do-gooding researchers doesn’t seem entirely appropriate, does it? It just doesn’t seem like a very charitable way to hold yourself out to the world; after all, the charity space is, more so than most, a WAITT sort of world (We’re All in this Together), rather than a YOYO sort of world (You’re on Your Own).
But maybe that’s just me . . .
Charity Navigator’s Information on Komen: Lots of Numbers to Consider
Plunging in, we find that Charity Navigator gives the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® charity four stars, which means that Charity Navigator finds the charity to be “exceptional.”
Going deeper, we see lots of normal charity sorts of metrics, e.g. an 82.5% charitable efficiency (which is the rate at which a charity’s spending budget goes towards actually doing the do-gooding that people supporting the organization want it to do), which in this case means spending $282 million doing the do-gooding, out of a total of $342 million spent overall, with the remainder going to administrative overhead ($26 million) and fundraising costs ($34 million).
The target for charitable efficiency you often hear of in this context is 85%, so Komen is doing quite well, but not top-notch, on this front.
On the other side of things, Komen brought in $320 million doing its do-gooding (think of that number this way: it’s just shy of a million bucks a day . . . ), and $38 million in letting its stored asset-base of $197 million beget other assets (for those keeping score, that is about a 20% return . . . which is nice assets-begetting-other-assets work if you can get it . . . ).
Also in there you’ll find information the media — left, right and center — highlighted this past week over and over again, showing that last year Nancy Brinker made a bit less than $500k last year running the Komen show.
I leave it to you do decide whether that is a problem or not, but I will note here that most businesses that are flowing a third of a billion dollars in and out each year usually pay their head honcho, say, ten times that much, and that, even back in the day before CEO pays gargantuan’ed, an organization of Komen’s heft would probably have paid something in the back-then-equivalent ballpark of the $500k that Brinker currently makes.
But should a charity? Hmmm . . .
CharityWatch: The Pluckiest, but Not All that Useful
By contrast, when you go to CharityWatch you’ll see a rather creaky looking website, with, I kid you not, non-clickable listings of most — but not all — of the charities it ranks. Making matters worse, when you go to its A-to-Z charity listings pageto look up a charity, what you find is a long alphabetical list of charities, most of the entries of which are non-clickable and a few of which link to a thorough analysis of a given charity — jus the sort of analysis you would like to get for all the listed charities. Frustrating!
If you go further in the CharityWatch site, you’ll see its explanation of why the good stuff isn’t online, together with pictures and articles and whatnot about its plucky head honcho whom, we can surmise, made that terrifically unfortunate keep-the-good-stuff-off-the-websitedecision. It’s easy to imagine a board meeting this past week, called to discuss the Komen controversy and its impact on CharityWatch, in which someone could be heard saying, Daniel, please, this would be the perfect time to put allour rankings online, now that Komen is so much in the news and we are getting three times the normal number of visits to the site.
In all, CharityWatch’s site makes you think that its heart is in the right place; it comes across like a feisty beatcop on the charity scene who is trying to make a difference, and who doesn’t spend much money on itself and does not put on airs. Which is how charities should be, right? And it does have a lot of useful general information on there, especially if you want to see what burrs are under the saddle of this particular charity crusader.
As a bottom line, then, if a charity you’re considering is one of the few that is analyzed in detail on CharityWatch’s site, it can be quite helpful. Otherwise, and surely in terms of specifics on given charities, not so much.
IRS 990s: For the Very rare Person Out There Who Loves Looking at IRS Forms
Online articles on how to research charities often suggest that you get your hands on the charity’s IRS Form 990.
I find that suggestion, in practice, to be 100% ludicrous and clueless. It’s kind of like suggesting that anyone who gets onto an airplane study up on the science of aerodynamics. It’s also kind of like suggesting that . . . oh I don’t know . . . that people try to understand their own 1040! Very few people understand how airplanes fly, and probably even fewer (!) their own 1040, so how on earth or elsewhere are they going to understand a charity’s 990?
Yet another reason why the media part of the financial industrial complex is out to lunch or, when not out to lunch, then out for the day and, for those times when it’s fully present, fairly often not to be trusted.
Summary of the Online Charity Rankers: A Starting Point, but Not the Finish Line.
All in all, then, these online sites are a great place to start smartening-up about a given charity. More specifically, they are particularly helpful with rule-outs. For instance, if Charity Navigator (the one with lots of information) negatively reviews a charity you’re considering, then the odds are good that the charity doesn’t have its basic nuts n’ bolts act together, e.g. it doesn’t have its financial health in order, or it is too secretive, or something else along those lines. A lot of charities are badly run . . . and you are well-advised to not give to a charity that cannot get its house in order — doctor heal thyself, and all that
But rule-outs aren’t enough, are they? I mean, giving to a charity simply because it’s not ruled out by Charity Watch/Navigator is a pretty low hurdle to clear, isn’t it? And would a simple rule-out approach have alerted people ahead of time to the coming Komen brouhaha?
The answer in unequivocally no: there is nothing on either site (and definitely not in a Form 990) that would have let you understand just what it is that makes the people running the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® charity tick.
How, then, do you get the real skinny? How do you do that?
The Harder to Find, But More Useful Information: Research the People
When Mitt Romney says, corporations are people, my friend, he is right in at least one sense — a legalistic one — because, as young law students everywhere learn, corporations have a separate legal existence and can act only through natural persons (that would be people to you and me . . . and to Mitt).
As it happens, if you had used Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to research the people inside Komen before all this ruckus raised up, then you would have had a good indication about the charity’s deep-down beliefs and personality.
For instance, you would have found that George W. Bush appointed Nancy Brinker (the founder of the charity and Susan’s sister), to be ambassador to Hungary, a position she held from 2001 to 2003; you would also have found that George W. Bush later brought her on as his Chief of Protocol from 2007 to 2009.
Now, ambassadorships, in particular, tend to be really good gigs (contra: the Syrian ambassadorship these days), and both Republican and Democratic presidents have been known to reward their best bundlers — the people who bundle together contributions and raise large amounts for political campaigns — with ambassadorships.
So right there you would have had some indication about what made Nancy Brinker tick: you would know, for instance, that she probably did not vote for Al Gore or for John Kerry. And that means that, if you voted for either of those two men, then right then and there you would’ve known that someday you very well might find yourself not agreeing with Nancy Brinker’s decisions on some things.
And then there are all the board members to research, as well as all the folks shown in the “our people” or similar page for the charity, etc., etc., etc. That should give you a lot of clues.
But let’s not take guilt by association too far, OK?
More Hard to Find, But More Useful Information: Look for Mentions on the Internet by People Who Do Not Like the Charity
The Internet is full of people tirading against other people and against businesses that done done them wrong. The trick is to be able to distinguish between the tirades that spring from craziness in crazy crazed people, and those that spring from something that would probably peeve you as well.
Again using Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, you could have done that sort of due diligence by performing the following online searches (with the quotes shown being part of what you actually type into the search box, signifying that you want to search for the exact phrase within the quotes):
evil charity “breast cancer”
As clients can attest, I use the “______ sucks” search a lot. It’s useful because it’ll usually surface the most vociferous negative comments first; it keys you into people’s passions (some of which will be of the crazed variety, and some of which can be useful).
If you had done that way back when, then among the search results you would have found was an entryin a blog called Business for Good Not Evil. That entry would in turn have opened up a huge vein of Internet gold full of people’s thoughts about why the Susan G. Komen for the Cure® charity — separate from and prior to any issues having to do with Planned Parenthood coming up — sucked and/or was evil.
Within that vein you would have learned that a lot of people thought that Komen has inflicted major harm on the entire breast cancer eradication effort, e.g., by supporting unhealthy and perhaps cancer-causing food, by downplaying prevention and environmental concerns, by being the quintessential force behind pinkwashingand consumerist charitable efforts, by having a very split-the-baby position on stem cell research, and by being very territorial about the phrase the Cure® (I include all these circle-Rs throughout this email both (a) to emphasize Komen’s uber-territoriality, and (b) because I have a circle-R decision coming up personally, and this is my way of cozying up to the symbol and trying it on for size in some writing . . . ).
Now I am not saying that any or all of this naysaying about Komen is true; I have not done that research. But I am saying that the information was there for anyone who was thinking about supporting Komen, from which they could have drawn their own conclusions, and thereby potentially avoided errantly casting a vote for the way they did *not* want the world to be.
Local Charities: I See You
So what else might a person with an eleemosynary (a law school word, that) bent do?
To answer that question first please think of the intuitive and wise Na’vi — the people of the One Tree — in James Cameron’s Avatar, and their spoken phrase that keys into their understanding of the innate interconnectedness of all living things on Pandora: I see you.
And then please notice how, up above, we went through a lot of Internet’ing techniques to try to figure out whether some charity full of strangers was worthy of receiving our gifts — whether we felt some connectedness with the charity we could not really see.
Hmmm . . .
So maybe, just maybe, it’s a better idea to give charitably to people you can look in the eye? Or that you can at least come close to looking in the eye?
For instance, you could pop over to 1388 Sutter Street, just west of Van Ness Boulevard, a block east of the oddly-located Hotel Majestic, and there you could look into the eyes of the people who work at the Breast Cancer Fund, and focus mostly on prevention and environmental factors (as opposed to Komen’s focus on curing the disease). Maybe those neighbors are nicely in tune with what you seek to support — maybe a lot more so than the Komen folks working at 5005 LBJ Freeway, in Dallas, Texas?
As ranked by Charity Navigator, the Breast Cancer Fund is less than one one-hundredeth the size of Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, and is worthy of three stars (which is “good”), as opposed to Susan G. Komen for the Cure®’s four stars (which is “exceptional”).
And, though — drat — we can’t read the actual review of the Breast Cancer Fund at CharityWatch (Daniel!), we most assuredly can tell that CharityWatch includes the Breast Cancer Fund as one of its top rated charities, and that the list includes twelve cancer-related charities in its list (Komen not being one of them).
You be the judge. Giving is a very personal decision.
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So there you have it: some ways to increase the odds that you’ll be a smart contributor to charities: (a) use one of the charity ranking sites as a starting point, and then (b) see what there is to see online about the people involved and/or whether they have any people out there singing their praises or anti-praises, and (c) always keep in mind that local enterprises might be easier to assess than those 1,800 miles away.
Dig a little, dig a lot.
That way, when you cast your vote for the way you want the world to be, you’ll increase the odds that your aim is true. You’ll increase the odds that your vote will further enable those whom you want to see succeed and, in doing so, help inch the world a bit closer to the world you want to live in, while also increasing the odds that your vote will *not* further enable those whom you wish would simply stop — stop, please stop! — doing what they’re doing because having them stop, too, would move the world in your favored direction.