What to look for when evaluating an aid agency

When people hear I’m writing a book on aid I immediately get asked about specific aid agencies they gave to. Unfortunately, I cannot tell them the quality of those aid agencies without spending time to research them. What I can tell them is how they can research the aid agency themselves.

Evaluating aid agencies before donating is critical

If you don’t have time to research an aid agency, then I would suggest not donating. There is no body that regulates aid and no outside entity ensuring that the aid agency is providing quality aid or working in the best interest of those you want to help. Without properly vetting an aid agency before giving, you risk your donation being used on programs that may do more harm than good. To ensure that your money is doing the good you intended you have to look past aid agency advertising, name recognition, and “happy stories”, and instead look for evidence that the aid agency is following best practices and constantly improving their organization.

Do the aid agency photos show the aid recipients as people with dignity and ability or do they show them as helpless victims. We’ve all seen photos of people in tears looking at their destroyed homes or emaciated African children covered in flies. If that was your child or your sister in that photo would you want it used for an international fund raising campaign, or would you feel it was exploitative? There are guidelines being developed for these photos. The gist of the guidelines is that aid recipients should be shown as people with dignity and ability, rather than hopeless and helpless.

In general I find that if an aid agency uses a photo that shows the aid recipient as having dignity and ability, then the aid agency is likely to have the organizational philosophy that aid recipients are able people, and the projects they develop are more likely to treat them as such. If an agency uses photos that show the person as helpless and hopeless, then they are likely to have a similar organizational philosophy and treat them as such. Which way would you rather be treated?

I have a lot of respect for aid agencies that regularly evaluate their work and share the findings, both positive and negative, with the world at large. If evaluations are rigorous and then acted upon by the agency, it can lead to real improvements in the organization, ActionAid is a good example of this. It is not easy for an aid agency to share their negative findings because it puts them at a disadvantage in competing for donor dollars with those aid agencies that do not share their negative findings. However, it is critical for the industry to grow and improve as well as for donors to be able to hold aid agencies accountable for that improvement.

Evaluations should be done on a regular basis. Either yearly as ActionAid does or at the end of each major operation. Annual reports or “happy stories” do not count for evaluations because their is no independent evaluation of their accuracy, therefore it is far too easy and tempting to focus on the positive or disregard the failed projects.

Some aid agencies may argue that project evaluations are too expensive and donors don’t want to pay for operational costs. While I agree that evaluations can be expensive, there are ways to have a less expensive evaluation done, for example working with a local university to have college students perform the evaluation. If it is not possible to find affordable ways to evaluate your project then share what you have tried with the donor so they understand what you have and have not been able to evaluate. Unfortunately, far too much emphasis has been placed on rating aid organizations by their operational costs, leading to donors unknowingly preventing aid agencies from paying for things such as evaluations. This will only change as donors begin to understand the negative impact of not covering operational costs.

If an aid agency does not have the findings from independent evaluations available on their website you should consider whether you want to donate to them. If they haven’t conducted evaluations they are not being professional, and if they have conducted them but have not shared them they are not being transparent. When donors begin to give preferential funding to aid agencies conducting and sharing needs assessments, they are rewarding aid agencies for evaluating their work and financially encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, read the most recent evaluation findings and then check that against the current work or funding proposal of the aid agency. Do they appear to have made improvements to their work based upon their evaluations?

If an aid agency is asking for your money, you have the right to know that they will use it responsibly. Unfortunately, in the past this has meant primarily focusing on the amount spent on administrative or operational costs. As stated above this, unfortunately, can do more harm than good.

Instead, I’d recommend looking for audit results from the past three years. A recent posting focused on one of my articles where I made this same suggestion. One of the comments posted was that audits were only legally required for large charities, and therefore didn’t apply to most organizations working in the field. I would argue that it is good financial practice to have annual audits regardless of the size of the agency.

If the audit results are not available on the website you may need to request them. If an aid agency refuses your request consider carefully whether you want to donate to them. If an aid agency has not conducted some sort of audit they are not actively reviewing and improving their internal processes, if they have conducted an audit but are will not share the results, they are not being transparent. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies performing annual audits and sharing the findings, they are rewarding aid agencies following sound financial practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, look for aid agencies that share their financial information with aid recipients. The aid agencies that have tried this admit that it was difficult at first because the local people may not agree with how an aid agency spent money, but in the long run it made their projects use funds more effectively and reduced fraud.

Often the aid agency will not share their needs assessment, which is unfortunate. However, regardless of whether they are willing to share the actual needs assessment, they still need to demonstrate that they have taken the following factors into consideration.

  • What similar services are provided by the government, why are these services inadequate to meet the needs, have they evaluated how to best support government services instead of duplicating or undermining them.
  • What other aid agencies are in the area and what projects are they implementing. This should focus on areas where there is potential problems with overlapping the work of other agencies or the potential to collaborate with other agencies.
  • Information on the situation of similar schools/health centers/orphanages in the wider area. If you know the general situation you will be better able to evaluate whether the aid that is proposed is appropriate.
  • Information on national standards. What does the government consider to be adequate?

If there is no needs assessment, if the needs assessment seems inadequate, or if the project they are proposing does not match the needs identified in the assessment consider carefully whether you want to donate to the agency. If an aid agency has not conducted an adequate needs assessment or is proposing a project that does not appear to meet the needs identified in the assessment, then they aid they are giving may not be needed. If donors begin to fund only those aid agencies that conduct adequate needs assessment and share the findings, they will reward aid agencies that following good aid practices and encouraging other agencies to improve their practices.

If you want to take this one step further, look for evidence that the results of the needs assessment are shared with other aid agencies as well as the local government and the aid recipients. A common problem in aid is the lack of information sharing between agencies and with the people they are trying to help. This wastes donor dollars by forcing each aid agency to pay for separate needs assessments and frustrates aid recipients who take their time to answer aid agency questions but never hear back as to whether or not they will actually be receiving aid.

Once you have looked at everything suggested above, if you still feel comfortable about the aid agency, then it’s time to see if there have been any complaints lodged or negative research on the organization. Although this information can be hard to find, two places to look include the BBB and AIP.

The Better Business Bureau’s Charity Reviews gives BBB ratings for aid agencies registered in the US. Unfortunately, since aid agencies are registered by state, it can be a little confusing because a single agency may have multiple entries. Part of the aid agency rating includes a section stating whether or not any complaints about that charity have been filed to the BBB.

The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) Articles page has a listing of charities mentioned in AIP articles. It’s worth seeing if the agency you are considering is mentioned at all.

There are other charity rating systems that can easily be found on line. In general rating systems are based on the 990 tax form and information on the governing board. Several charity rating sites are working on ways to better evaluate aid agency work, unfortunately, none of them currently evaluate an aid agency on any of the factors recommended in this article.

One commenter states that it is unrealistic to expect the average donor to take that much time to evaluate an aid agency. The commenter points out that the average person doesn’t even do that much research before voting or investing in stock. While this may be true, the unfortunate end result is that people vote for politicians that do not look out for their best interest, lose their life savings on the stock market, and perpetuate poor aid practices that may do more harm than good. Don’t let this be you. For the sake of the people you are trying to help, please take the time to be an informed donor or don’t donate at all.