Perform your due diligence before donating to a charity

Thousands of people, including many Canadians, have given money to Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute or to its Pennies for Peace fundraising program, and were no doubt shocked and disappointed by recent allegations of financial mismanagement at the organization, falsehoods in Mortenson’s two books and evidence that some of the schools the group claimed to have built either don’t exist or are sitting empty.

Many other charitable organizations working in Afghanistan, my own included, have watched the news with alarm, concerned there may be a backlash to the sector as the trust of donors erodes.

The answer is not to give up on charitable efforts to support social development goals, such as advancing access to education, but to apply greater scrutiny of the accountability systems in place at non-profit organizations soliciting donations and to undertake a deeper level of inquiry.

Whether donors give $30 or $3 million, they need to do their due diligence and ask hard questions.

This includes watching for some basic good practices of accountability, such as the disclosure of regular, audited financial statements or checking the percentage of an organization’s revenue that goes toward administrative costs.

It also means seeking out evidence as to the impact of donor dollars, such as checking whether an organization collects verifiable, credible data on the results it achieves, and what kind of monitoring and evaluation systems are in place. Organizations should present donors with stories and numbers that document their achievements.

Most importantly, donors need to consider if an organization’s methods are sustainable. As anyone who has ever fundraised for a charity knows, some projects are an easier sell than others: projects that offer immediate, visible change for money can be wrapped in a simple narrative that is digestible and responsive to people’s emotions.

In reality, however, development happens slowly along a continuum and, as a result of many different factors, coalescing over the long term.

It requires more than a school building to make education accessible. Trained teachers, school supplies, a good curriculum, building the capacity of school administrators, textbooks, registration with the government and many other inputs are needed to ensure the long-term viability of an education project.

What is also less romantic about good development practice in real life is that there is rarely a single, charismatic hero making it all happen. It’s not that there aren’t heroes, but that there are many, and most of them have neither fame nor fortune.

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is effective because of the thousands of hours contributed by volunteers across the country who run chapter meetings, organize annual galas, sell Afghan products at local events, sit on committees, or store items in their garages for silent auctions.

We’re fortunate enough that even our executive director is a full-time volunteer.

On the ground, our Afghan colleagues teach the literacy classes we raise money for, train the teachers, drive up mountain roads dropping off mini-libraries to village literacy centres, and monitor our projects in dangerous areas. They are skilled, educated people and they could leave for safer shores, but they have chosen to stay.

The key lesson to be drawn is that the best safeguard against waste and corruption is to think small. Aid projects with massive budgets quickly become unwieldy as funds disappear into the layers of subcontracting or among the multitude of players who may have inconsistent visions and levels of commitment to the original goal.

Projects that are too big and too ambitious can lose oversight. That old cliche – grassroots – really is the way to go to keep actions reflective of objectives.

There is good reason to keep giving generously. But we have to be savvy, big-picture givers. We need to resist suspiciously simplistic solutions, and to be more pragmatic and thoughtful, which means asking pointed questions. A responsible charity will be glad that you asked.

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian aid worker managing education projects in Afghanistan. She is projects director at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Her column is distributed through Troy Media.