For many Vermont nonprofits, the past year was as challenging as 2020 was. For the nonprofits that serve our most vulnerable populations, 2021 was even more challenging.
Many of us donate to nonprofits we care about, but few of us have limitless resources. Even before Covid, donors faced tough decisions: What do I care about most? Which organizations do I trust to conduct that mission? Who most needs my support? How will my donation have meaningful impact?
The day I began writing this happened to be “Giving Tuesday,” and my inbox contained more than two dozen emails from nonprofits seeking donations. My spam and “promotions” folders contained about three dozen more, and my mailbox is replenished daily with such requests.
While that is typical for someone who has served nonprofits for two decades, it’s likely that other Vermonters have also received a high volume of such requests, and those requests will continue throughout the holidays. No wonder nonprofits coined the phrase “donor fatigue.”
Many of these requests come from charities that help provide our most vulnerable populations with basic human needs — food, shelter, healthcare, and safety. These include: BROC, Rutland Community Cupboard, the Housing Trust of Rutland County, NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice, Dismas House, Rutland Mental Health Services, NewStory Center, United Way, and Vermont 2-1-1, to name a few.
Paramount Theater, WonderFeet Kids’ Museum, Rutland Free Library, and Come Alive Outside are other nonprofits that enhance the lives of Vermonters in immeasurable ways. There are also media organizations in Vermont that provide valuable news and information at no charge to their consumers. Of course, places of worship as well as the high schools and colleges we hold dear, also ask for public support.
The dedicated executive directors and fundraisers of these established organizations speak with clarity and conviction about the importance of their mission and vision, and with indisputable credibility about their organizations’ positive impact. They also demonstrate their utmost respect for the constituents they serve. All are reasons Vermonters donate generously to these nonprofits.
In the past two years, several new nonprofits have cropped up, many of them in response to the burdens created by Covid-19. In too many cases, neither the mission nor the vision of these new entities is clear. In fact, some of them are not registered charities at all, but promote themselves as such so they can generate revenue.
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for giving wisely this year, and for making sure your donations are benefiting bona fide charitable organizations.
- For any cause you care about, check out the nonprofit’s website, especially how it describes the problems the organization hopes to solve. Look closely at how it demonstrates that the work it does is essential. Nonprofit experts call this a “theory of change” — the reason for the organization’s existence. Look also for evidence that the organization plans strategically and provides clear and consistent examples of how it will measure outcomes.
- Learn all you can about the people who are executing the nonprofit’s stated mission. In Vermont, it’s easy for anyone who wants to start a nonprofit to do so; it’s easy as completing online forms, paying nominal fees, and naming three board members. But an IRS designation of “nonprofit” is not a certification or endorsement of the staff’s qualifications, or of the mission’s value.
- Donors should confirm that the nonprofit respects its employees, volunteers, funders, job applicants, media, and other important stakeholders. Without that respect, the organization may suffer low morale, inefficiency, unnecessary staff turnover, and loss of funding. All can harm the very populations the nonprofit is supposed to serve.
- Don’t hesitate to question the financials of an organization that calls itself a nonprofit but does not qualify for tax-exempt status. While there are 30 different types of nonprofits, those classified as “501(c)3” — such as the ones named earlier in this article — are charitable tax-exempt organizations. The tax-exempt status helps these organizations secure public and private grants, and it also means the organization annually submits audited financial statements.
- For user-friendly information about a nonprofit’s financials, check the “IRS Form 990” — often found on a nonprofit’s website. Vermont 2-1-1 (vermont211.org) lists details on thousands of Vermont nonprofits. Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and Candid (candid.org) rate hundreds of nonprofits on financials, operations, and impact.
- If you cannot confirm the exact contribution a commercial sponsorship will deliver to a nonprofit, then it’s far better to contribute to the nonprofit directly.
Many sponsorships attract public contributions that benefit the sponsor more than the named nonprofit partner. Furthermore, such sponsorships often create excess work for the nonprofit’s staff and detract from more effective fundraising initiatives.
As 2021 ends, there are reputable, valuable, and beloved nonprofits all over Vermont competing for resources. If you can provide funds, materials, or time, then also be vigilant that your contributions are supporting trusted nonprofits. To that end, consider: What do you care about most? Which organizations do you trust to conduct that mission? Who most needs your support? How will your donation have meaningful impact?
Those nonprofits whose mission, vision, and values clearly and consistently identify a crucial need, and that demonstrate they are delivering measurable positive impact to the communities they serve, are the ones that most deserve your support — now more than ever.