Failing the Grade

A survey of 1,001 Americans commissioned by New York University’s Organization Performance Initiative should give all of us in the nonprofit sector pause. While a majority of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in charitable organizations, only 25% believe that charities do a “very good” job of helping people. The percentage of people who believe that charities waste a “great deal” or fair amount” of money is a staggering 70%, with only 10% of the mind that we are very good” at spending wisely.

Popular wisdom likes to point the blame at others…particularly the very public meltdowns of some very large organizations. Think Red Cross or United Way. But I think the truth is that these very visible scandals simply make the case or “prove” what so many Americans feel. And what they feel is that most nonprofits simply are not doing a very good job at doing good.

It’s not that we are bad or venal people. But too often, we are trying to do our jobs with too little resources and, in many areas, too little knowledge of what needs to be done. Our leaders and our board members don’t understand nonprofit law, what makes a gift, how nonprofit accounting works. Worse, there is little understanding of what our responsibilities to our donors should be.

I frequently speak at service clubs on how to make wise charitable choices. I always ask how many of them have ever made a gift to a nonprofit and never received a thank you letter or tax receipt. I don’t care who I am talking to, or where the club is, at least twenty-five percent of the audience raises their hand. One quarter of every random group I speak with does not believe that they have been properly thanked for a gift.

The number of people who raise their hands when I ask how many have NEVER been told how their donations were spent is even larger. Generally, one-half to two-thirds of the audience feels that the nonprofits by and large ignore them once a gift has been secured.

Less quantifiably, but equally disturbing are the knowing looks and little laughs that I get when I talk about nonprofits who never remind donors of their pledge payments. When we do that, we not only write off the pledges themselves, but we too frequently also write off the donors who made those pledges in the first place.

If we simply thanked, and then thanked again, every single donor for his or her gift, and made an effort to personally let them know how their gift benefitted the organization, I believe that perceptions would begin to change. And as those perceptions change, more people would be willing to reach into their pockets and support the organizations for which we work.

Janet Levine is a nonprofit consultant and trainer. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at