Lessons From Failed Giving to Charity

Turns out that charity, even small dollar giving, takes a lot more work than many people think. So, as someone who has a small foundation, let me fess up about some of my biggest philanthropic failures.
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Did you take the "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge"? It was a fun way to make a positive difference. But it was sort of a "one and done," feel-good sort of moment. However, with a quick look on www.Guidestar.com or www.Charitynavigator.org you can see that too high of a percentage of many groups in the ALS space spend almost all their money on high salaries for their staff and/or on fundraising expenses. Too few of the donated funds actually goes to actual medical research.

Turns out that charity, even small dollar giving, takes a lot more work than many people think. So, as someone who has a small foundation, let me fess up about some of my biggest philanthropic failures.

For years I supported a number of faith-based organizations that I later found out refused to hire or serve people with disabilities. It turns out that faith-based organizations are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many religious organizations refuse to serve people with disabilities: it's shameful, but true.

In another failure in my giving, I found out that some organizations that purport to help people with disabilities don't actually hire people with disabilities or invite them to serve on their board of directors. Despite all kinds of glowing marketing material and promises on websites, the facts were their own version of a bucket of ice water on the head. Shocking hypocrisy -- but it also happens all the time.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice?? Clearly I needed a better system than online gifts to groups that look good on the surface! I learned the hard way. Now before I donate to an organization I ask a series of serious questions. You should too.

Below are real questions and answers from a great organization to our foundation. I got permission to make this application public, so here goes. I hope it helps you think through your own giving. No matter how small or large the size of your check is, the organizations that get your money should reflect your values throughout.

What is the purpose of your group? The purpose of the Autism Society of America (ASA) is to measurably improve the quality of life of all individuals living with autism. This is accomplished thru a national network of 106 local and state affiliates that collectively, with the Autism Society of America, serve over 1,000,000 people a year. The Autism Society of America works to help individuals with autism advance from life stage to life stage so that with each advancement the person can maximize his or her quality of life.

How do you measure success? We measure success by increases in the quality of life indicator such as maximizing self-sufficiency, independence, health, socialization, communications, recreation, relationships, etc.

What was your biggest failure or lost opportunity as an organization this year, and what did you learn from it?: Our biggest failure continues to be the need for us to help advance the working relationship of organizations within the autism community. While we recognize that many in the community have different views and approaches, we also recognize that our strength as a community is best shown when we all work together. What have we learned? That the need to get people to respect and work together is not easy but we can't give up.

Does your organization have policies that support meaningful inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels? We certainly do. We believe that we are one of the most inclusive organizations within the autism community in that each aspect of our staffing and governance is strongly inclusive of people living with autism and other disabilities. Our personnel policies require us to seek out such people for any vacant jobs so that such individuals can be considered for each open job. Our board is inclusive of individuals with autism as are our advisory panels. We also have a panel just for input into our organization from individuals living with autism.

Will the program or project include people with disabilities? We certainly do and will always continue to do so. Programs and projects we provide are inclusive and we make sure that all we do is responsive and supportive of the needs of individuals with autism.

Do other programs in your organization include people with disabilities? Throughout our 106 affiliate network, individuals with autism are part of staffing and governance.

Describe the accessibility of your office to people with physical disabilities? Our entire office is accessible for people with physical disabilities however we are working on getting a better way to enter our office thru the key tag for people who use wheelchairs.

Describe the accessibility of your website to people with hearing and vision impairments?
Right now, we lack in that accessibility but as we explore new website approaches we are examining how best to accomplish this. We do have sign language individuals provide support to individuals attending our annual conference.

Do you employ individuals who have disabilities? Based on self-reporting, 21 percent of our paid staff has an autism diagnosis. Staff members with disabilities are working in our development department, Autism Source Contact Center, general operations and programs. All individuals with a disability are provided the same compensations (based on experience and education) and benefits for non-disability defined employees doing similar work for our organization. We also have a minimum hourly wage of $10.00/hour for our hourly payment schedule.

Please describe how you educate your Board of Directors and Trustees about serving and partnering with people with disabilities? As the oldest national autism organization, we have a board of directors that all it does is serve and partner with people with disabilities. The staff works daily with board members to assure that we are inclusive and being responsive to the needs of people with autism as well as any other disability.

Bottom line: There are many outstanding organizations that deserve our support -- well more than we can afford to fund. So doing the due diligence needed is a vital part of any philanthropic strategy, no mater how big or small your gift.

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