Ken Stern is the chief executive of Palisades Media Ventures and a former chief executive of National Public Radio. His book “With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give,” will be published in February.
The last few days of the year may be a time of celebration and indulgence, but it is also when many people think about helping others. Though much of the roughly $240 billion in individual charitable contributions comes in December, these donations are often made hastily, based on poor information. Before writing those end-of-the-year checks, here are some things to remember about how charities work and how to evaluate them.
1. Charities are principally dedicated to serving the poor and needy.
The term “charity” is associated with helping the poor and downtrodden, but American charities — 1.1 million organizations with $1.5 trillion in annual revenue — make up a large, rapidly growing economic sector that includes health care, higher education, scientific research, social services and the arts. There is incredible diversity among charities, from tiny neighborhood food banks to multi-state hospital chains boasting lavish concierge services and million-dollar salaries for executives. In fact, hospitals are the largest component of the U.S. charitable sector, but they are more likely to be profitable than for-profit hospitals and aren’t much more likely to serve the needy.