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Ice Buckets, J-Law and Big Oil: Navigating the Charity Landscape

  • David Byrd

The Prostate Cancer Foundation turned down money raised on Reddit when it was linked to stolen nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence.

The Prostate Cancer Foundation turned down money raised on Reddit when it was linked to stolen nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence.

Recently the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced it would no longer invest in big oil companies because of the effect burning fossil fuels has on climate change. In early September, the Prostate Cancer Foundation returned money raised by a Reddit website post that used nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence that had been stolen from her iCloud account. Earlier this year, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars for the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association using online videos. But how can you tell if a charity or non-profit is worthy of your donation? To find out, VOA Now! Host David Byrd spoke with David Campbell, a professor of public administration who teaches on philanthropy at New York’s Binghamton University.

BYRD: How do organizations like the Prostate Cancer Foundation or the ALS Association when they are presented with fundraising ideas, how do they determine this is a good thing to do or it’s not a good thing to do?

CAMPBELL: I think that there are sort of two different questions there. The one that I think poses the biggest question is whether a particular approach to fundraising is going to create a conflict or a challenge for the organization. I think charities really have to ask three pretty simple questions:

  1. Does the way in which they are raising money conflict with their mission – the change they are trying to make the difference they are trying to make in the world? Yes or no. And if no, then maybe it’s not a good idea.
  2. Does the way that they are going to raise money have the potential to damage their reputation in some way? And I think in the Reddit case, associating the Prostate Cancer Foundation with the Jennifer Lawrence leaked pictures would damage their reputation.
  3. Whether a particular fundraising effort will compromise the independence of the charity in some way? Will they be associated with a corporation or a donor or someone may want something or get something from the charity that could compromise the charities’ ability to be independent actor trying to make a difference and advance their mission.

BYRD: Obviously non-profit organizations or social welfare organizations are operating on limited budgets. Let’s say a corporate person comes in and says ‘we want to donate x amount of money to your foundation if you will put us on your website site or if you will say it’s brought to you by this company.’ Are there internal things that these organizations have to do to determine whether something is going to compromise their independence?

CAMPBELL: Sometimes it’s just transparency that’s important. So the non-profit or the charity really depends on the public seeing that charity or non-profit organization as being completely committed to a particular mission. And if they’re transparent about getting money from an organization whose interest might conflict with the charity, if they’re transparent about it and explain what they took the money for, and why they took it, then that might alleviate the conflict. But sometimes, even with that level of transparency, charities or non-profits that are associating with organizations that may seem to have different interests than those charities do are still going to raise questions. An environmental organization, for example, that is taking money from BP: there may be times when BP and that environmental organization have the same mission. But when BP gets in trouble for environmental issues, is that charitable organization going to want to have that association with BP, even if they have been transparent about purpose?

BYRD: And that’s got to cause some internal angst for the charities as well because they are looking at not taking a significant amount of money.

David Campbell, Chair and Associate Professor of Public Administration at the College for Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University in New York.

David Campbell, Chair and Associate Professor of Public Administration at the College for Community and Public Affairs at Binghamton University in New York.

CAMPBELL: Yes. It’s often that way with major corporate donors. The currency of a charity or a non-profit organization is its reputation and the public’s view that the charity believes first and foremost in a particular mission. They want to advance a particular change that the public can rally around. And if they see that organization as taking money from a corporation or an individual who they don’t see as having the same pure motives in advancing that mission it’s going to raise questions. Even if the charitable organization believes that it has vetted the gift and it has made sure that their interests and the corporate interests of the donor align. It’s still going to raise risk that the public may not trust that getting in bed with that corporate funder isn’t going to compromise the organization’s independence in some way.

BYRD: So if I want to give money what are four of five things that I should look for in one of these charities that would so ‘okay this is a good place to invest my money’?

CAMPBELL: This is the kind of question that people asked with the ice bucket challenge and it’s a really important question. The first may be do you believe in the mission? Is this something that I really care about? When I teach philanthropy at Binghamton University and my students have to give money away --- and they do in some of my classes – the first thing that they ask is ‘does this or is this organization doing something that I care about?’ That’s probably just a foundation level question.

The second question is what are they doing with this money? Do you have confidence that the things that they are doing are actually making a difference with respect to that mission?

A third might be how transparent is the organization about its activities? So when you go to the website, does the organization report on its results? Does it tell you where it’s getting its money? What is it doing with the money that it gets? Is it soliciting input from its donors?

Another question might be what can you learn from the experience of people who have given money or have used the service of that organization? Is there information on the website or information you can get through social media or other sources that tell you what people’s experiences with that organization are.

You can look at charity rating services. What are they telling you about the organization? Now you need to be clear that charity rating services are going to look at a variety of different measures to determine whether an organization does a good job. Places like Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance can provide information about the conformity of charities with basic standards of practice. Go to the Attorney General’s office in your state. The Attorney General’s Office in New York State for example provides basic information about charities in the state. So there are a lot of resources available to get information. But if I were to summarize, I would say that first what’s important is mission; second what’s important is results – is the organization making a difference? And third do you know how the organization is using the money and are you comfortable with the organization using the money in that way.

BYRD: Anything else?

CAMPBELL: I think a good donor is an informed donor. And I would say about things like the Ice Bucket Challenge, I love the enthusiasm the Ice Bucket Challenge brings and the number of donors it makes. It gets people to give money, but I think it’s most important for people not only to give but also to be informed donors.