Sunday, December 21, 2014

Who should get your conservation donation?


Who should get your conservation donation?


There is a bewildering diversity of organizations out there.  How do you choose?  Making a donation is an extremely important decision; it is like voting.  Donors decide the priorities of non-profits.

1. Giving to a charity is an important personal decision.  What causes or issues do YOU care most about?  Don't impulsively respond to the pamphlet that comes in the mail.  Think about your issue before you begin to look for an organization to support.  You might care about some specific organism, like cheetahs; a group or organisms, like bats; a geographic region, like Amazonia; a specific place, like the wetlands down the road from you.  You might care about a particular problem, like invasive species; or you might be concerned most about a certain issue, like whaling; or you might have a favorite solution to a certain problem, like planting trees to combat climate change.  Make a very short list of YOUR priorities, the less you have to donate, the shorter your list should be. 

Taking the time to decide on one or two recipients makes your life easier in the long run.  I decide who I want to support, then mostly ignore the daily solicitations in my mail and inbox (except newly emerging issues/crises).  Your time is valuable, research well, then stick with it until you have reason to change your direction.

2.  Think about how you want a problem approached.  Are you more of an activist that wants to support in-your-face demonstrations?  Or do you prefer to work more quietly in the background?  Do you want accountability, like an organization that sues big polluters, or do you want to support a community-based rails to trails project in your county?   It is not just a matter of what issues an organization addresses, but how they operate.  Choose an organization that is consistent with your priorities and style.

3.  Do some research.  This takes time but is worth it. Invest some effort up front so you make a good choice, then stick with that organization until your priorities change or they disappoint you.  You'll save yourself time in the long run if you are not considering every solicitation you get.  Narrow the field to those that directly address YOUR priorities through YOUR preferred methods.

The research is easy.  Here are some of tips:

Look for focus.  Some organizations do a little of everything and do it everywhere.   If an organization works all over the world, on whales, butterflies, and orchids, they probably do not do all these things well.  If your interest is whales, find an organization that specializes on whales.  If you want to put a new roof on your house, who will you hire: a roofing contractor or a general contractor that also does floors, plumbing, wiring, drywall, paving, and landscaping?

Scrutinize the organization's annual reports.  I tend to avoid organizations with very glossy and glitzy annual reports produced by expensive marketing consultants.

How much of the budget is sucked up for administration, development and other departments geared to internal maintenance rather than conservation outcomes? 

Where do their funds come from?  Are they mainly funded by large grants and donations?  Or do they really rely on membership and small donors?
How significant will your contribution be to the organization?  For some organizations, the membership and small donors are mainly icing on the cake; others completely depend on small donors. 

Look at their organizational structure.  How many presidents, senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors, assistant directors, etc. there?  The fewer, the better.  How many staff appear to be directly working on your priority?  Be cautious where you cannot find good information about organizational structure. 

But be skeptical of the annual report. There are many legal tricks to blur the figures in the annual report.  For example, they might say they only spend 10% of their budget on development.  But this only includes the fulltime development staff.  Other staff might easily spend 50% of their time on fundraising too, but they are listed as scientists, conservationists, field staff etc.  I am highly suspicious of large budget organizations funded by many diverse sources reporting small development budgets.

By supporting them will you be getting a glossy calendar, glossy magazine, nice mug, etc.?  Opt out of the gifts if you can.

Where are their offices?  Do they have expensive modern office space where real estate is expensive and far from the conservation scene?   

You can research on-line how non-profits spend their money from their IRS 990 forms.  By being tax-exempt these organizations are partly subsidized by the taxpayer; their filings are public.  Some organizations have their 990 forms on their website.  I like such transparency.

If not presented you can usually find it via a search engine like Google-- plug in the name of the organization and form "990".  The 990 form provides more detail on income and spending than most annual reports.  You can also access 990 forms and other useful information for many non-profits at http://www.guidestar.org  [But trust your own research more than the simple guidestar ratings; they are easy to fudge.]

For example, I googled "Wildlife Conservation Society 990" and the first hit was the link to the pdf of their 2009 990 form.[i] In 2009 the Wildlife Conservation Society spent $2,443,748 on its five largest consultants.  You can see that they listed income of $10,563,032 in membership dues. The 990 lists what the top employees are paid.  The Wildlife Conservation Society 990 for 2009 shows the CEO received benefits worth $1,014, 567.  He and the 15 Vice Presidents listed earned a combined $5,515,365 in 2009.  In this example, payments to the top five consultants and top 16 executives exceeded 75% of what they brought in from memberships. 

4.  Once you have a short list of organizations you might want to support, do not be afraid to contact them with questions.  Anyone willing to take your money should be more than happy to communicate with you.

If you still uncertain about an organization you can delve into your options more; read older annual reports (often available on their web sites, or request one).  Are they growing?  Do they keep a consistent mission?  Do they demonstrate results? 

Remember, these organizations want your money, their sales pitch puts them in the best possible light.  Exhibit the same skepticism you would use with any salesman. 

5.  Once you decide, stick with it and watch them closely.  Non-profits appreciate a loyal donor.  They can plan better when income is predictable. Inconsistent donors force organizations to invest considerable effort courting new donors.  If you stay with them for some time, you can see yourself if they are delivering.  If you jump to new organizations each year, you do not develop that perspective.  If your perspective tells you they are not delivering, then you can do one of two things: move to another organization, or try to hold them accountable. 

Your donation history gives you clout to demand better outcomes.  If you have supported one organization over several years, you have the ability to say "Each year I donate $XXX to your organization, but am becoming disillusioned with your failure to deliver...."  This means a lot more if you have been with an organization for several years than if you are a new member.  This is an important way you can get more clout for your donation.  

By being a consistent supporter, you also provide an asset the organization can use to market itself to foundations and larger donors.  It is one thing to say "We have 500 members,"  and it is quite a better thing to say "We have 500 members, 450 of them have supported us loyally for more than five years."  Your several small donations can have more leverage when you consolidate them in a larger amount to one recipient and sustain them for multiple years.

In summary:
·       Identify your priority issue and how you would like to see it addressed.
·       Research organizations that specialize on your issue.
·       Look for organizations that demonstrate efficiency and results, read their annual reports and 990s.
·       Avoid organizations that demonstrate high overheads and costly administration, marketing and development.
·       Concentrate on a few or one top recipient; don't shotgun 20 dollar donations all over the board (unless, perhaps, lending membership for advocacy purposes).
·       Stick with your organization as a loyal supporter for multiple years.
·       Follow your organization and demand results.


The conservation issues we face are huge and daunting. Most of us do not have the ability to simply give more.  But we can give more effectively.  No one can demand results better than a donor.  Take a little time, get to know who you are supporting, be loyal to those who deliver, demand more from those who do not.



[i] Full disclosure- a former employer of mine.  By using an organization I know, I could make sure what I used as an example was representative.