How To Spot a Charitable Scam

Let’s say I handed you a $100 bill and the following list of charities. If I asked you to pick one to give the money to, which one would you choose?

American Association of the Deaf-Blind

National Veterans Services Fund

Children’s Wish Foundation International

Cure Alzheimer’s Fund

Breast Cancer Relief Foundation

Now before you make your choice, consider this: four of these charities are considered to be among the absolute worst charities in America.

These charities are shams designed to line the pockets of unscrupulous monsters who prey upon the charitable intent of others. They raise millions of dollars and blow it all on large executive salaries and lavish fundraisers designed to be self-perpetuating. No meaningful progress is made toward their charitable aim. Each spent less than 3% of the millions it raised on direct cash aid toward the causes they purport to maintain.

… So that’s four of them. One received a perfect score from charity watchdogs.

Look closely at the list again. Really scrutinize those names. Are you confident that you’ve spotted the diamond among the turds? Are you sure your $100 is going to be well spent?

Giving is great, but you must do it smaht, kehd

The answer, if you’re still curious, was the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Yeah, the one whose url is, who knew? If you gave your hypothetical money to anybody else, you just made a non-hypothetical monster-man hypothetically richer. I’m not even going to link to their sites because I don’t want to give them traffic of any kind.

We Bitches are trying to reach a very specific audience of people who are cheap yet virtuous. Like a SJW version of Fred Murtz: pants hoisted to the fourth chakra, gnashing their teeth, trying to figure out which of the Syrian refugee children they host keeps turning the thermostat up.

We wholeheartedly endorse charitable donations, even if (and possibly especially if) you are on a tight budget. The further you move yourself outside of the poverty danger zone, the greater your responsibility to help those who are still there. Donating to a worthy charity is never a bad idea—but the key word there is “worthy.”

Here are two questions to explore before you open your coin purse and a gnat comically buzzes out.

How do awesome charities spend your money?

Charities generally put their money in three buckets, and the ratio of those buckets will tell you a lot about whether they are trustworthy or not.

Fundraising includes things like hosting a party, procuring giveaways for raffles or auctions, sending out emails and direct mail campaigns, or even buying ad space. Ideally, a small amount of money spent fundraising will net a very large return in donations. 

Administrative costs pertain to things like paying employees and renting office space. Wages should be competitive, not lavish.

Finally, the program cost is the money spent on actually doing whatever it is that the charity exists to do: buying livestock for impoverished farmers or running a shelter for abused women or whatever.

This is how awesome charities spend your money.

(Yo this is unrelated but you may notice a vast difference in graphical quality between Piggy’s posts and mine. That’s because I am a professional artist and Piggy is a professional writer. Her articles have fewer unnecessary commas and rely less on the passive voice. I actually planned on giving you the full MS Paint Experience but I actually found that I… couldn’t? It seems I have lost the skill. I used to be such an artiste with that spray paint tool… but as Tommy Lee Jones said in the greatest movie ever made, The Fugitive, “Don’t let ’em give you any shit about yer ponytail.” What was I saying?)

How do shitty charities spend your money?

Some charities are little more than scams. They sic highly-paid telemarketing companies on old folks with landlines and talk them into donating to a charity with a sappy name and a snappy mission statement. But the marketers get to keep a substantial portion of what they raise as a finder’s fee style of commission, creating an endless cycle of very lucrative begging.

Meanwhile the CEO may help him or herself to a few million dollars in passive salary.

This is how shitty charities spend your money.

(Yeah this graphic is crying out for a touch of that sweet spray paint. Im srsly sry i failed u guise.)

In cases like this, the charity isn’t run like a charity. It’s run like a fuck station. It’s technically legal, but it’s deeply unethical. It continues to happen because people don’t research charities before consenting to donate.

Fortunately, for every thousand well-intentioned people, there are only one or two such gross-os. The reason that so few people do it is because charities must be transparent with many of their finances. This information is out there for anyone to see. So if someone wants to misbehave, they have to be cartoonishly villainous enough to do so publicly.

Look ’em up

So how do you determine where a charity falls on this awesome <———> shitty spectrum? Good news. Someone has already done all of that work for you.

Charity Navigator is a truly awesome tool. They aggregate financial information on charities and rate them based on a number of complex financial metrics, such as executive compensation, program growth, transparency of financial information, adherence to donor privacy policies, and other markers of a serious, legally-compliant charity. They then issue a rating of zero to four stars.

Additionally, they have a ton of simple, free guides available to help you spend your money wisely, all of them much better than this article that you’re reading right now. They help sort through “hot topics” donation avenues. If a sudden earthquake or flood moves you to send money, don’t hop onto the first shady GoFundMe that crosses your Facebook feed; check Charity Navigator for recommendations first.

Read on for for the word on how to make sure your charitable donation packs the biggest punch.

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12 thoughts to “How To Spot a Charitable Scam”

  1. First off, love the blog! But, this article reinforces some serious misconceptions that harm many “good” nonprofits. It’s true that some of the largest charities don’t utilize donations to best deliver the services they claim. However, the vaaaaast majority of nonprofits are comprised of highly underpaid, hardworking people who make do while being incredibly underresourced. Anecdotally, I myself have worked the past six years for a non-profit. I do graphic design. I just this year got a new laptop, my previous one was probably between 7 and 10 years old. Setting value on nonprofits by their program vs administrative costs perpetuates this cycle where nonprofit employees run InDesign on ancient computers over a shitty internet connection. Imagine how much more we could do if that 4 hour trifold project didn’t take 8 hours because of restarts and crashes? Administrative costs vary greatly based on what a non-profit does and how large it is. Sometimes spending a little more on admin means greater efficiency and ultimately a greater amount of services delivered. I would highly recommend this article (or this entire blog) for people who want to get a better understanding of nonprofits and how they work.

    1. Hail fellow designer! May the goddess of InDesign bless your paragraph styles. Thank you for reading and please keep doing so!

      One of my personal challenges as a writer is understanding that not everyone can peer into my head. Because you raise a great point, which I agree with and failed to call out. It’s buried in the data of the article. My example “good” charity, the Cure Alzheimers Fund, pays its CEO a quarter million dollars. Some people may mistakenly point to this as a “wasteful” expense, and say that someone truly “dedicated to the cause” would accept far less, perhaps even nothing at all. But this is not what I think at all! Wages for nonprofit workers should be modes BUT competitive enough to attract talent and robust enough to keep their workers from burning out. I’m planning an article someday soon on charitable burnout with a particular focus on salary because I think this is absolutely important.

      What I really wanted to focus on was the *ratio.* You can pay a junior graphic designer $15 an hour to make your program brochure, or you can pay an internationally-respected agency $1,000/hr to do the same thing–the question is “how much do you expect to get back in return?” I definitely don’t ascribe to a draconian view of overhead, but there should be a demonstrable ROI. The people I’m squinting hard at in this article are scam artists, not true charitable organizations. They don’t rent office space, or pay employees, or invest in technology and equipment, even unwisely or imprudently…they just don’t have those things at all, because close to 100% of their administrative costs are multi-million dollar salaries for themselves (and sometimes their family members). Those people are garbage people, and I hope they all fight with each other at Thanksgiving and burn their mansions down trying to deep-fry their turkey.

      1. I agree that ROI should be the driving force, but I think the ratio itself (fundraising, admin, program) is a bad metric for assessing it. Non-profits are incredibly diverse in size and industry, there are far too many factors involved to compare and judge on this platform. So assessing ROI should be based on the not on spending, but on *outcomes*. We wouldn’t judge a corporation for wining and dining a big potential client so long as they’re financially successful, so why should we judge an NPO for throwing an expensive event or hiring a specialized staff if they are mission successful? Oftentimes this seemingly exorbitant spending is the only way to bring in more money, most NPOs would way rather be doing other things with that money as well.

        Oftentimes the way non-profits spend money is in face dictated by the DONORS THEMSELVES. So it’s doubly unfair to just an NPO based on spending when their hands are forced to spend in certain ways in order to unlock restricted funding. Which is often restricted because of a mistrust in NPOs to spend responsibly. Hence, endless cycle.

    2. Meg, thank you so much for sharing that article. Not gonna lie, it got my blood boiling!

      What Kitty said: nonprofit workers should be paid competitive living wages and given the right resources they need to do their good work successfully. If a nonprofit is not taking proper care of its staff, then I find their humanitarian/charitable motives rather suspect (having worked for miserly nonprofits myself… I feel you).

      Thanks for reading, and please please please keep the comments coming! The only way we get better is with this kind of great feedback.

  2. Lawd, nothing makes me more righteously furious than those who take advantage of the kindness of others.* I’ve run a few of my favorite charities through Charity Navigator now and I’m relieved to see they are all at least 3 stars. What a relief! Now I won’t have to go pounding on the doors of charity scams demanding my pennies back!

    * Not true. A lot of things make me righteously furious all the time.

    1. Oooo, I can’t wait to watch this TED Talk!
      We definitely focused on actual, literal scams masquerading as charities in this article. But good charities under unfair scrutiny is definitely a problem worth spreading the word about, so thanks to both Meg and Liz for sharing this info! I love the idea of changing the way we measure the success of nonprofit work–results, not pennies saved. We have a couple more articles on charities queued up and I’ll be interested to see what you think!

  3. Another good technique (especially for folks like me that can only donate in small increments of $20-30), is to give to small, local charities. That way you can often see the direct impact of your donation, the organization is thrilled to put your $20 right to work, and you’ve increased their individual donor numbers – critical when applying for larger grants, regardless of the amount each donor gave.

    Here in Chicago, I like supporting arts education and opportunities for expression for young people, so I often give to The Albany Park Theatre Project, Barrel of Monkeys, Filament Theatre, She-Crew, and others. I’m able to meet Executive Directors, educators, and students, and see the immediate impact and value of my gifts.

  4. I do like this article since I’ve been donating to a good amount more charities than usual this year (I’m still not very successful at budgeting, and tracking my spending seems to consist of “I haven’t spent more than is in my bank account” right now, but at least this is for a good cause?) Glad to see that several of my regular donations are rated very highly, and a non-profit fanzine I’m co-organizing is going toward a charity with an almost perfect score on Charity Navigator!

    I do have a question though, about how this applies to mutual aid/direct aid situations. I’ve seen a lot of “support X city’s mutual aid efforts!” for recent social movements, and although I want to help out, it’s real hard to figure out whether a random Paypal, Cashapp or Venmo address is actually legitimate, and not a scam in the name of a movement. Any ideas where I can get more info on vetting these, so I don’t get scammed out of my money and possibly keep a legitimate cause from getting much-needed funding?

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