As a first step in compiling our “favorites” list, the organizations we considered were vetted for management transparency/accountability and financial efficiency concerns. Many of the sources below also include information about orientation, methods, program accomplishments, and impact. Our sources for this information included the following:
- Charity Navigator – a popular source for basic financial efficiency ratings; measures of management transparency/accountability added in 2011. Prior years’ ratings easily accessible. No fees.
- Guidestar — comprehensive financial information for subscribers, basic (limited) free information. The Take Action section provides information on Programs and Impact, as well as expert comments from Root Cause, Givewell, and Philanthropedia (when available).
- Ministry Watch – provides sector specific financial ratios as well as information on history, mission, and accomplishments. Publishes lists of ministries selected as “Shining Lights” as well as Donor Alerts. A ministry of Wall Watchers.
- Intelligent Philanthropy – subscription only, combines key organizational data with insightful program information compiled by Excellence in Giving, a full-service philanthropic advisory firm for wealthy donors.
- Charity Watch – (formerly American Institute of Philanthropy) is a respected watchdog organization well known for its rigorous financial analysis of charitable organizations, as well as influential research into industry trends and practices. Site includes useful articles and listings; contribution required for ratings guide.
- BBB /Wise Giving Alliance – focuses on accountability standards, provides some basic organization and program information.
- ECFA – (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability) membership in this organization commits an organization to Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship; these respected standards are incorporated into ACCORD membership, below.
- ACCORD Network – (formerly AERDO) works to equip organizations to achieve the highest standards, principles, and effectiveness in Christian relief and development practice to end poverty. Membership in ACCORD commits an organization to honoring these collaboratively developed standards and principles in all that they do; view standards here.
- Organization Websites – are often the best sources for complete information concerning how an organization approaches their work with the poor, the principles and practices they rely upon, and the impacts and outcomes generated. Links to key pages within each organization’s website, as well as their latest annual report (we recommended reading these), are provided.
Our list of Top Organization is limited to those focusing on the problems of extreme poverty. While some of these organizations may also serve the moderately poor, each one has, as its primary focus, a fundamental commitment to improving lives and communities among the world’s poorest peoples.
Our list of Top Organizations is further limited to what we call parachurch organizations – also known as Christian NGO’s, Christian humanitarian organizations, Christian relief and development organizations, or Christian foreign ministries. Whatever they are called, these organizations work in Christ’s name as they serve the world’s poorest peoples; they are truly Christ’s people, doing Christ’s work, His way, for His glory.
Naturally, many worthy organizations do not appear on this list. We have chosen to include only organizations that work from an explicitly Christian foundation, because the Word of God’s love and tangible expressions of that love work together to make a true difference – we have no further to look than Christ’s own ministry to see this. Or to put it another way, the Word without action is inauthentic, but action without the Word ultimately proves futile. This leads to an important criteria for inclusion on our list: We wish to highlight organizations that actively seek to strengthen the local, indigenous church in the normal course of their work with the poor. The reason for this is that when a helping organization leaves a community, as it will someday do once self-sustaining improvement has been achieved, it will be the local, indigenous church that remains behind to continue working for hope, dignity, and opportunity in that community.
Another reason that some highly regarded organizations may not appear on our list is that they may operate primarily as “relief” (emergency aid) providers. There is no question that providing emergency aid is important, life-saving work. However, for our purposes at Givers by Design, preference is given to organizations working in the “transformational development” arena. Transformational Development may be thought of as the next step after emergency relief has been delivered; the hand-up after the hand-out. Many experts have noted that hand-outs, applied in a context that properly calls for development, often serve to perpetuate debilitating dependencies. While a hand-out (emergency aid) is sometimes the necessary and appropriate response, it is the hand-up (tranformational development) that brings lasting change and improvement for the desperately poor. For more on this subject, we recommend the book “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett.
In compiling this list, Givers by Design has not sought to be another charitable “ratings” agency; we have not assigned numerical ratings for use in comparing organizations. There are several reasons for this. First, it is difficult, and ultimately misleading, to compare financial ratios for organizations operating in significantly different arenas, or under significantly different service delivery models. For instance, there are huge differences in staffing requirements between operations focusing on delivery of medical services and infrastructure, and operations focusing on distributing donated pharmaceuticals. A second reason is that overhead requirements vary considerably according to the nature of the work being done. An agency providing aviation services to development workers, for example, will necessarily have a significantly different asset base and overhead burden than an agency involved in providing training for indigenous church leaders. Finally, even fundraising expense ratios can be misleading; organizations which receive large amounts of gifts-in-kind (donated goods and services) naturally incur less fundraising expense than organizations that rely on small contributions from a broad donor base. For more information on this subject, check into “The Overhead Myth” — a research based initiative from the leaders of BBB/Wise Giving Alliance, Guidestar, and Charity Navigator.
All of the organizations on our list have received good marks for financial effeciency and management transparency and accountability. While these measures are certainly important, we give top priority to indicators of program effectiveness. (For more on this subject, see Trends in Effective Giving.) For purposes of our list of Top Organizations, the relevant question is: Would you rather support an organization that raises funds more efficiently, or an organization whose programs have more impact? To this end, our research effort has focused on information concerning operating principles, practices, impacts, and outcomes gleaned from the ratings agencies, ministry analysts, and association memberships listed above, as well as the organizations’ own websites and annual reports. In this way, we are better able to determine program effectiveness – our primary criteria in developing this list.
The end product is a list of our favorite parachurch organizations, those we consider to be most effective in helping those struggling to rise above extreme poverty. The organizations on this list are noted for their expertise in applying best practices for transformational development – empowering individuals and building capacity in communities to generate and sustain long-term, fundamental improvements in basic living conditions. In researching our list, we looked for evidence of these best practices, including:
- orientation towards transformational change
- long term approach that works towards self-sufficiency
- commitment to addressing underlying causes, not just surface symptoms
- commitment to lending a carefully designed hand-up, avoiding dependency-creating handouts
- commitment to relying on indigenous peoples for local leadership
- priority given to developing local leadership and community resources in their everyday work
- priority given to a guidance role that respects and fully utilizes the abilities and resources of individuals and the community as a whole
- insistence upon community partnership in developing project goals and plans
- insistence upon community participation, ownership, empowerment, and capacity building
- a visible commitment to going about their work with the poor in Christ’s name, to working along side and strengthening the local church wherever possible, and to proclaiming and showing the love of Christ for all peoples.
- in the case of organizations working in the comprehensive development sector, a holistic approach that addresses the full range of issues impacting the communities they serve
Note that employing best practices is not the exclusive domain of large organizations. In recent years, there has been a growing movement towards sharing and extending the collective knowledge base. Many small organizations are at the forefront of refining and creatively employing best practices in their everyday work. For more information on best practices for transformational development, read Helping Well.
All of the organizations on our “favorites” list bring a substantial focus, expertise, and track record in utilizing these best practices as they work alongside the world’s poorest people to create a future with hope, dignity, opportunity, and self-sufficiency. Their programs are effective; gifts made to these organizations can be made with the assurance of making a lasting difference.
Organizations are listed both alphabetically and by sector for convenience. For each organization listed, you will find a brief description of that organization’s distinctives, strengths, and programs, sector and size, links to key webpages, financials and annual reports, as well as sources for more detailed information. The User Comments sections immediately following our lists have been provided especially for your thoughts or experiences with these organizations.
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