Making Your Donations Count: 5 simple guidelines for selecting conservation organizations to support

headshot-thalerSMALLEvery year, the number of non-governmental organizations (NGO’s for short) committed to reducing climate change, saving the ocean, developing alternative energy sources, cutting down plastic use, not cutting down forests, or myriad other worthy causes, grows. Many of these organizations are staffed by committed, hard-working environmentally minded advocates struggling to make a difference. But, with so many NGO’s out there, and more being founded, how are concerned citizens expected to know which NGO’s are effective, which best match their ideals, and, most important, which NGO’s are worthy of their donations (either of money of of volunteer time). To alleviate this problem, I’ve assembled a set of 5 relatively simple guidelines to help you evaluate and select a conservation NGO that fits your values and gets the job done.

1. Determine how well the NGO incorporates local and indigenous stakeholder groups into their programs.

I’ve started here because this is the most difficult to assess but, by far, the most important. The most successful NGO’s seek out local stakeholders for consultation. The very best include local stakeholders among their employees, at high management positions. The reasons for this should be obvious: local stakeholders are familiar with the political and social climate of the region in which they’re working. They have personal connections to key decision makers in the community. Stakeholders are more sympathetic to a conservation message when that message is being delivered by respected members of their community, rather than purely by outsiders. Without local support, many conservation initiatives are doomed to failure.

An extreme counter-example is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, of which we have been very critical. By fostering a purely adversarial relationship with the immediate stakeholders–citizens of Japan, Canada, and the Faroes Islands, to name a few–they have essentially lost before their campaigns even begin. This is a method that garners significant international support, but alienates the people directly involved in the industries and behaviors that Sea Shepherd, ostensibly, is trying to change. By creating an us-versus-them mentality, this artificial conflict galvanizes secondary stakeholders and members of the general public who may have been sympathetic to the NGO’s cause against them, making a successful conservation initiative monumentally more difficult.

The dark side of conservation is conservation colonialism–a failure to integrate local stakeholders into an NGO’s program, especially when indigenous groups are concerned. In these circumstances, native groups are either intentionally marginalized or simply ignored in favor of a global conservation philosophy which fails to function at the local level. Beyond the sheer audacity of assuming that an outside consultant is better informed on local issues than people who have lived there for generations, failure to include indigenous groups is a poor policy for both strategic and human rights reasons. The Guardian recently ran an excellent piece on First Nation advocates in Canada–Indigenous rights are the best defense against Canada’s resource rush–which highlights the importance of including local and indigenous stakeholders in any conservation decision.

2. Read the organization’s actual mission statement and supporting documents.

This seems like it should be obvious, but I’m willing to bet that plenty of our well-intentioned readers contributed to NGO’s for a specific cause without investigating the overall mission of the organization. Many of the largest NGO’s are multifaceted, and you certainly don’t have to agree with every one of their goals in order to contribute to a specific campaign. Even so, it is wise to do your due diligence to ensure that you contributions are not also supporting initiatives of which you don’t agree. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is a perfect example of this. While many of their goals–reducing animal cruelty in agriculture, fashion, and entertainment industries–are laudable, PETA also seeks to eliminate laboratory animals for scientific research and service animals for the disabled. I’m not saying those are inherently invalid goals (although I personally disagree with them) but many PETA supporters may be surprised to know that their donations are not just supporting “Go Vegan” ads featuring saucy celebrities.

Many progressive or fast-changing organizations will update their mission statements, sometimes quite frequently, so it behooves a conscientious contributor to revisit those documents every so often. The Sierra Club provides a nice, comprehensive overview of each of its mission statement changes throughout the last few decades.

3. Look for a track record of past successes.

This may or may not be relevant, depending on the age of the organization. If an NGO has only recently solidified around an emergent problem, you can’t expect a long track record. On the other hand, if an NGO is almost 40 years old and not one of the goals stated in their mission statement has been met, you may want to consider throwing your support behind a more effective organization. Results matter.

It is important for you to decide what you consider a success, after all, it’s your time or money to contribute. For large, global issues, raising awareness may be a perfectly reasonable goal without any tangible policy changes. For smaller-scale, local issues, raising awareness may be significantly less important than whether or not we actually shut down the sulfur plant (for those keeping score: we did) or are continuing to hinder the production of a limestone mine.

Scale matters, too. The successes should match the scale of the problem. If, for example, you are working to improve regulations on deep-sea mining, than convincing one country with marginal deep-sea resources to adopt regulations is far less impactful than convincing a major, international regulatory body to incorporate your policies.

Remember, a savvy NGO is going to make it’s biggest successes easy to find. If you don’t find those victories particularly compelling you may want to look elsewhere for organizations to support.

4. Spend some time understanding the NGO’s finances.

This one can be tricky, but there are tools out there to help you track down important information about an NGO’s financial expenditures. Charity Navigator is my personal favorite (which certainly has nothing to do with them using one of my tattoos as a logo). A few things to look out for: how much of your donation goes to overhead versus actual programming? How much of their budget is devoted to fundraising? How do they allocate their funds to each project? How much do their CEO’s and high-level managers make? These are important questions that will determine the real impact of your donations.

Finances are, of course, not the whole picture. Different issues require different approaches. While Ducks Unlimited may make its mark buying up large swaths of wetlands to be held in trust and undeveloped (though check that mission statement if you love wetlands but not hunting), groups protesting the Keystone XL pipeline may need to sink the majority of their financial resources into paid lobbyists to catch the ear of Congress. And, while the well-respected Surfrider Foundation is pumping almost 23% of it’s resources into fund-raising, the oft-maligned Sea Shepherds put an impressive 83% of their resources directly into program expenses.

5. Seek out dissenting opinions, but nurture a healthy skepticism.

It may seem crass to go out and search for information that is critical of your favorite organizations, but it is still important. The trick here is to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Every moderately successful NGO (and even some not so successful ones) will incur plenty of criticism. Much of it will be the traditional, knee-jerk hyperbole of of those generally opposed to environmentalism or specifically against a particular campaign for ideological reasons. Some of it may even be the product of persona management software. But, no matter what the issue at hand, some of it will actually be valid, reasonable criticism. The world is a big place, and there is no issue on which everyone, universally agrees. Seek out the valid criticisms, try to understand them, and then decide whether or not it changes your opinion of the NGO.

Be exceptionally wary of organizations that seem to have garnered no criticism at all. They are almost certainly a front for the industries they claim to protest.

Final Thoughts

As with any guidelines, these are not hard and fast rules. I doubt you will find any single NGO that has an unblemished record for every single one of these points. It’s important to pay attention, think about your own motivations for supporting a cause and deciding if the NGOs you support reflect your own values on these issues. The bigger the NGO, the more likely it is that you’ll find something you don’t like. If that’s the case, let them know, as a donor, that you think there are things they can improve.

Feel free to use the comment thread to recommend your favorite conservation NGO’s and let us know why you feel that they deserve your support. In the interest of inclusiveness, I’ll ask that we all refrain from criticizing the personal values of other commenters that lead them to choose particular organizations.


  1. David Shiffman · May 22, 2013

    Excellent list. The only things I’d add are:

    1) If you’re donating a relatively small amount of money, it can benefit smaller NGOs more on the margins.

    2) While I agree with #2 above, you can also specify that your donation goes only to a specific cause within an organization. For example, I don’t agree with everything the Humane Society says or does, but we rescued my puppy from a Humane Society shelter and I’ve donated to that shelter specifically. That’s also the same reason I don’t donate to the Duke Annual Fund, but instead donate to specific things at Duke.

    • Andrew David Thaler · May 22, 2013

      That’s a great point, Dave. A $10 donation is going to make a bigger difference to an NGO with an operating budget in the thousands than to one of the big international orgs than operate in the millions.

  2. Alex Warneke · May 22, 2013

    It’s funny that you mention #2. Note…if you ask for their supporting documents and they don’t give them to you unless you make a donation first…wise to NOT donate to them. Though I won’t say names…this actually happened to me with one of the major NGO’s. I most likely could have easily looked it up online, but the eager representative didn’t even point me in that direction.

  3. Charity Navigator · May 22, 2013

    Thank you for encouraging your readers to give generously and also be smart givers!

  4. Chris Parsons · May 22, 2013

    The issue with point (5) is that some NGOs are attacked by bad guy corporations who try to smear them. To give you a specific example, David mentioned the Humane Society above – there is a website called Humane Watch that publishes smears (most libelous) against the Humane Society, but Humane Watch is funded mostly by corporations who are opposed to the Humane Society’s campaigns for farm animal welfare. Most of the big environmental NGOs, and many leading scientists, working on climate change have been attacked by comporate or politically-funded attacks at some time. The criticism and attacks can be very sophisticated and reasonable sounding at times, because their opponents can afford good PR companies and such. So I definitely agree with the skepticism caveat. Some of the best NGOs can be attacked the most.

    I would add a (6) – Talk to someone working in the field you want to support, who do they recommend?They probably have a good idea as to the NGOs that give you the best bang for your buck, the ones with the best reputations for integrity, collaboration and effectiveness … and the ones to avoid.

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