That once again became clear to me when I began looking into a charity called Alley Cat Allies that, by coincidence, is headquartered just a few miles from my home in Bethesda, MD. Alley Cat Allies is, to be blunt, a mess. Even so, it has been given the best possible scores by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar.
This is a big problem for the nonprofit sector, and one that deserves more attention from foundations (Hewlett, Gates, Raikes) that are trying to improve the practice of philanthropy and the performance of nonprofit groups.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy just published my story about Alley Cat Allies, a group that has been around for decades and advocates for feral cats. Alley Cat Allies is not a mom-and-pop charity; it brought in nearly $10m last year.
The story is behind a paywall, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that Alley Cat Allies has engaged in a variety of questionable dealings in recent years. It used charitable donations to acquire two residential property in Arlington, VA, including the home next door to the home of its executive director, Becky Robinson. (I’m told this helped resolve a dispute with the neighbor over Robinson’s backyard full of cats, but could not confirm this.) Amazingly, in neither case did Robinson inform the full board that Alley Cat Allies was buying the properties. (One board member learned about the real estate dealing from me!) The board chair, a woman named Donna Wilcox, for years has been a full-time, paid employee of Alley Cat Allies, which is crazy. How can a paid staff member evaluate or provide oversight of her boss? (Wilcox left her job days ago, she wrote on Facebook.) The board, which includes some well-credentialed folk, including a PhD economist with the FDIC, has not met this year. Top executives get generous pay. The organization pursued a costly copyright lawsuit against a former freelance photographer and his wife, for what appears to me to be no good reason. Employees say it’s an awful place to work. Etc.
And yet….those stellar rankings.
I write this not to critique Michael Thatcher, CEO of Charity Navigator, or Jacob Harold, CEO of GuideStar, who are doing the best they can with limited resources. I like and admire both of them. But they don’t have anywhere near enough money or staff to independently examine hundreds or thousands of nonprofits. They might have uncovered the governance problems at Alley Cat Allies by closely reading its Form 990, but they could not have known that the charity was buying the house next door to its executive director. To their credit, neither claim to be watchdogs, although they are often portrayed or perceived that way.
What can the charitable sector do to better evaluate nonprofits? That’s hard to say. Maybe community foundations could come up with lists of best local nonprofits. Maybe other funders could focus on niches that they care about, by evaluating the education nonprofits that try to help poor kids get through college, or the climate-change advocacy groups, and then recommend the best of them, explaining why. (Animal Charity Evaluators does this for animal welfare groups, but, of course, that didn’t stop donors from sending money to Alley Cat Allies.) Independent evaluations collected by others could then be distributed on broad-based platforms such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar. Maybe there’s an opportunity here for Feedback Labs or the broader feedback movement, to reward well-run nonprofits that listen to those they are trying to serve.
Meantime, what’s a donor to do? By all means, consult Charity Navigator and GuideStar. They will spotlight problems with a nonprofit after those problems become public, and they will help you, as a donor, avoid fake charities that spend most of their budgets on fundraising. But do a little of your own digging, too. Research a charity with as much seriousness as you’d research a car, a vacation or, for some, a restaurant. Or give to a nonprofit that you know well and trust. Or turn to organizations like GiveWell or the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which identify a small number of effective charities.
Do keep giving if you can. Thankfully, charities like Alley Cat Allies are the exception and not the rule.