2015 Charity 100: A smarter way to give

It’s the holiday season and time to help others. But how can you make sure your donation will be spent wisely? Our annual Charity 100 grades can help



From the December 2014 issue of the magazine.

(Illustration by Rob Dobi)

(Illustration by Rob Dobi)

Three times a year, Kerry Gordan sits in front of her computer with a very specific intention: to donate to charity. For this stay-at-home mom and avid volunteer, this selfless act isn’t just about donating to a cause, it’s about taking a break from her busy schedule to reflect upon the time she had with her mom and dad.

Ten years ago, Kerry got a phone call: her dad had landed in a Calgary emergency room due to esophageal hemorrhaging. A week later, Kerry’s father died from ad- diction-related complications. “After years of abuse his body just gave up,” she says. Yet, despite an estranged relationship, Kerry never stopped loving her father.

“It’s one of the reasons I continue to give to the Calgary Health Trust and the Salvation Army,” explains Kerry from her Kelowna, B.C. home. “I’ve actually seen the work these organizations do and know the difference they make—both to those they help and to the families that are affected by addiction.” Kerry also donates approximately $1,000 each year to the Heart & Stroke Foundation. “My mom died from a sudden and massive heart attack just days after her birthday,” she explains. “My hope is that my donation will help find a cure, and prevent others from having to go through what we went through.”

Kerry’s decision to donate to charities with a personal connection is not uncommon. According to 2013 survey, 70% of donors actually choose a charity because of a personal link to the cause. “People respond to the issues that touch their lives,” explains Dr. Beth Breeze, director of Philanthropy Centre at the U.K.-based University of Kent. “They are motivated to help when a cause speaks to their personal passions and experiences.”

Play: Mark Brown explains the Charity 100 on 680 News with Mike Eppel     

At MoneySense we know that everyone gives to charity for their own reasons, and that picking a cause is a very personal decision. But one thing is common among all donors: They don’t want to see their money wasted. “I have faith that these charities are using a good portion of my donation for the cause,” says Kerry, “but I’m guessing. I have no real way of knowing.”

That’s why we created the Charity 100. Now, in its fifth year, our charity rating system gives a letter grade to the 100 biggest charities in Canada, as measured by the amount of money raised directly from the public. Our examination is designed to determine if charities are meeting generally accepted standards for financial management and governance in their sector, based on information from the charities’ tax filings and a questionnaire sent out by MoneySense. Our aim is not to judge whether or not a charity is important—only you can do that. Instead, we examine whether charities are adhering to best practices in their specific sector. That means you still need to decide what type of charity you want to support, then you can use the Charity 100 to see which organization gets top marks for efficiency, transparency and accountability. Because let’s face it, most donors would prefer their dollars go to lean organizations that concentrate on their cause, rather than bloated institutions that soak up donations to support their own operation.

Once we gather all the data, we analyze it and assign each charity a letter grade in each of four categories—efficiency, fund- raising, governance, and reserve fund size. Finally, we tally up all the scores to arrive at an overall grade. In this way, the MoneySense Charity 100 helps donors get a better idea of how well their money is being used.

PHOTO GALLERY: Canada’s top-rated charities »


Charity Efficiency

In order to measure efficiency, our system looks at how much of your money actually goes to the cause at hand. Of course, every charity needs to spend money on overhead costs—it’s crucial to keep the lights on, buy office supplies and pay salaries—but most donors will want the majority of their dollars to go directly to the cause, whether it’s feed- ing children, finding a cure for a disease, or supporting the environment. Charities get top marks in our ranking if they spend 85% or more of the money donated to them on their cause. For organizations that don’t run programs directly, such as hospital foundations, we give top marks to those that pass along 90% or more of donated money to the charity or institution being supported. Fundraising Costs Another factor we measure is how much it costs each organization to raise money. As a donor, you don’t want to see too much of your money spent on marketing, mail- outs, lotteries and gala events. So we calculate how much it costs each charity to raise $100. A charity that spends less than $10 per $100 raised gets top marks, and fund- raising organizations that raise money for hospitals or other charities get top marks if they spend $5 or less. We should point out that the majority of charities tend to exclude costs associated with special events and lotteries in their annual reports, but we’ve added those hard costs back in.

Governance & Transparency

While efficiency is essential, effectiveness and transparency are just as important. So we also look at whether each charity adheres to standard non-profit governance models and whether it lets donors know exactly how their money is being used. We send out a questionnaire every year that asks a number of policy questions, including whether or not they have bylaws or multi- year strategic plans. We then follow up with each charity. Organizations that don’t reply at all are penalized in the questionnaire portion of this category. Our reasoning is that if charities want the public to support them, they have an obligation to inform us about how they’re run, including salaries they pay to attract top talent. In 2011, only 58 charities responded to our questionnaire. This year 80 out of 100 charities responded. Charities with three years of audited financial statements avail- able online earn additional points in this category, as do organizations that reveal the salary of their highest-paid employee. We feel that a charity with nothing to hide should be open about its finances.

Cash Reserves

Finally, to assess whether or not a charity is using your donation wisely, we examine its rainy day fund. Prudent planning is an essential component of a well-run organization and this translates into a reserve fund—where bills could be paid from should donations dry up. That said, a reserve fund requires careful planning: too little and they’ll have to shut their doors too quickly; too much and the charity is sitting on cash that could be better spent. In short, if a charity has enough money in its vaults to run its programs for years to come, perhaps it’s not in urgent need of your donation.

Keep in mind: there are good reasons why some charities have larger reserves than others. Some may be saving up for a big project, while others have “donor-directed” dollars that can only be spent on a specific program chosen by the donor. We give top marks to charities that hold three months to three years of reserves.

How to use the Charity 100

While there was a time when donating to a charity felt like an obligation, more and more people view contributing as a chance to give and, hopefully, make a difference. To start, consider the causes you are most passionate about. Then find ways that you can give. For more effective donations, avoid the middle- men, such as street canvassers or telemarketers, as these efforts always translate into more administrative costs. Also, consider a giving plan. This could include writing bigger cheques to fewer charities, making annual donations, or politely declining requests from well-meaning friends or co-workers. Once you know what cause you want to support, scan our Charity 100 list to see which organizations meet or beat their sector standards.

If you find that your chosen charity ranks below par, don’t consider it an indictment of the organization; instead, turn it into an opportunity to proactively ask questions.Remember, it’s your dollars they’re spending, you have a right to ask what they’ll be used for. Just as your mission is to donate to a cause that will have significant, tangible results, our aim with the Charity 100 is to enable you to determine if your dollar is being spent wisely. Our hope is that you will be inspired to give more freely, knowing your money is well spent.

23 comments on “2015 Charity 100: A smarter way to give

  1. Thank you so much, MoneySense researchers, writers and editors, for continuing to produce the Charity 100 project year after year. It is clearly an enormous amount of work. But it is so valuable to Canadians, by highlighting the need for charitable giving, and providing sound criteria for selecting and consistently supporting specific charities. Well done!


  2. Yet again your magazine misses the mark. The true impact of our organizations should be measured on accurate assessments of OUTCOMES. You continue to downgrade organizations that operate charitable lotteries, without taking the time to understand the business model nor the impact of net proceeds. You can do better than this.


    • Bang on!


  3. I am astonished at the differences in display of your grades page (http://www.moneysense.ca/planning/2015-charity-100-grades) on different browsers. Firefox, my default browser, shows all columns except that they run over the right side of the page and out of sight and every grade column is duplicated; the result is unreadable grades. Chrome and Internet Explorer show all the grades cleanly but omit the numbers they are based on (efficiency, reserve, etc.). Your Webpage designer needs to do more work on this page, and you need to allow him/her to use the full page width for tables.
    On the research itself, I am very glad to find it, but wish I could get similar data for some smaller charities.


    • Agreed. The UX here leaves something to be desired. In fact I’ve been navigating for 10 minutes to try to find this list of 100 and have yet to find it.


  4. As a former employee of a charity that received an A+ I can tell you that I don’t believe in this list, either that or they were successfully able to pull the accounting wool over MoneySense eyes. I also think the way they treat employees should be a factor in the rating. This company that got an A+ would fail from most current and former employees in this category.


    • Hi Kara,
      Thank you for commenting and explaining another perspective. I do believe that employee retention (ie: treating them fairly and paying them honestly) is an important part of any business, not just for charities. And you’re right, we don’t factor that into our scores.
      But to speak to the accounting component: We get all our numbers and accounting information from the Canada Revenue Agency. Many charities have complained about this but we believe this is the fairest way to keep the playing field level. That means every charity is analyzed based on the financials they send to the CRA.
      Thanks for reading!



      • If you are relying on the CRA for much of your information, then your analysis is 100% flawed. No group is as enlightened about the necessity for charitable operating dollars than the people in Ottawa.


  5. Everyone wants their donor dollars to go “directly to the cause” and not towards “overhead”. But what does that mean?!? Nobody has ever clearly articulated precisely what it means when money goes directly to the cause. At the very least there is no universally accepted definition of the phrase “giving directly to the cause”. If donors were as vigilant with how they spend the rest of their money as they were with their charitable contributions, the economy and the world would be a better place.


  6. The idea of a list assessing the sector is fine, but MoneySense clearly does not understand the fundraising profession. Is the goal to deliver money to mission? Or nickle and dime the sector to the point that it can’t retain staff or donors because it doesn’t invest in stewardship, acquisition or staff development? Where do they think those wonderful regular donors come from?! A balanced perspective please!


  7. You do a significant disservice to charities who do amazing work when you make recommendations on where to give based only on tax information from CRA.


  8. A foolish Way to Evaluate Charities

    A reputable, financially focused magazine doing an analysis of charities to help donors make smarter decisions. What’s wrong with that? It’s not about impact.

    MoneySense is a personal finance magazine who (clearly) doesn’t know that much about charity. That’s unfortunate. But charities know this way of viewing impact (based on financial ratios) is crap and do little to nothing to correct it. That’s unforgivable.

    Charities should be measured on the efficiency, transparency and governance. No question. But these measurements need to be made in light of the overall impact and effectiveness of the organization first and foremost. Without that, these measurement and rating systems are just ways for magazines like MoneySense to sell more copies and mislead more donors. It’s on charities to do more to communicate actual impact and effectiveness to their donors and refuse to perpetuate the current line of thinking.



    • Excellent point. If anything, it seems that charities actually perpetuate the misguided information presented in the Money Sense article. The non-profit sector has a responsibility to enlighten donors about the impact their investments are having on the pursuits of charitable missions and visions. Yet they are failing miserably in fulfilling this responsibility. When charities view each other in a comparative and competitive light, this is nothing short of deplorable.


  9. In your mag article where are the heavy hitters:Prostate Can, Alzheimers, ALS, Heart & Stroke,Cdn Cancer Soc. ? Nice try and a good intention but there are too many omissions. I rec’d multiple mailings this yr from 23 charities which I have donated to, plus a few referees. Next yr, I might throw them out when rec’d. I think the surface is only scratched re the skim-off by opportunistic admin. “do gooders”. My motto is,” I’d rather be cynical than naive”.


  10. I resent the admonition that we donors shd investigate the handling of our money. Who has the time. If the charities aren’t transparent with the use of funds given to them, then why shd we give. The onus is on them to prove to donors that the gift dollars are used wisely. I’m not here to spend time auditing their mgmt. I will cease giving if the status quo persisits.


    • I take your viewpoint a step further and suggest that charities should regard and treat their donors as partners. The onus isn’t just to demonstrate that donations are being allocated wisely, but to reinforce with the donor how their involvement is actually achieving progress in the pursuit of the mission.


  11. Where is the list of the top 100 charities? I’ve been going around circles for 20 minutes. Doesn’t make one want to subscribe to MoneySense!!


  12. “Because let’s face it, most donors would prefer their dollars go to lean organizations that concentrate on their cause, rather than bloated institutions that soak up donations to support their own operation.” Are lean organizations going to find a cure for cancer faster than “bloated ones”? Are lean organizations with limited bed space better at providing a safe refuge for abused women and children? Are lean organizations more effective at providing top-notch skills training to individuals seeking gainful employment? Your value system is beyond flawed. It is downright fascist. The major problem here is you and the rest of Canada are placing way too much blind faith into your “best practices”. Maybe you should re-examine them because they are doing a hell of a lot more bad than good by impairing charities to carry out their work.


  13. How can Samaritan’s Purse get an A+ rating? I donated $100 to them 7 months ago, and they have mailed at least a dozen requests for more money since then. If each snail mail costs $1.00, they’ve wasted at least 12% of my donation. I will not be donating again, nor trusting the ratings on this list.


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