Thoughts about Giving: What Is a “Good” Charity?

by Kimberly Goodrich
Senior Director of Development

“Thank you SO much for this wonderful gift (cooling vest). This was the first time in six years that I’ve been able to venture out for a bit in the summer to enjoy a trip to the zoo with my family and children. Words can’t express my gratitude. Keep up the wonderful work you are doing with people suffering with MS.”

– Mary T. from Texas

There has been a lot of talk recently about good charities and bad charities. News reports have focused on charities that do little, if anything, to help alleviate social issues… and on companies who profit from the increasing need for funding to ensure missions are fulfilled. The nonprofit world is buzzing with words like “expense ratios,” “ratings,” and “overhead.” The result: We are now taking a new look at what being a good charity really means.

As an organization, MSAA welcomes this conversation. We believe in using our resources efficiently to best serve the needs of the MS community. We have worked hard over the years to streamline our processes and improve our program delivery. We also know that our effectiveness cannot be truly understood by looking at one number. Just as “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” we are now discovering you cannot judge a charity simply by its overhead.

Charities exist to ease suffering and help those in need. This current conversation is urging us to look beyond overhead ratios and take into consideration whether or not a charity is achieving its mission. What impact are they having on righting social wrongs, alleviating distress, or improving quality of life? How many meals did they serve, how many children did they educate, how many lives did they improve?

Recently, three of the major agencies that provide ratings and information on charitable organizations produced a letter aimed at furthering this conversation. Signed by the CEOs of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, GuideStar, and Charity Navigator, this letter urges donors to look beyond the overhead ratio.

“Thank you so much for getting back to me so soon! After over two years of waiting and being passed off [by other organizations], my MRI is scheduled for a couple of hours from now! Thank you!”

– Jordan R. from Colorado

These agencies are working to expand the evaluations they themselves perform on charities in order to help donors evaluate the true impact of their donations. To view this letter and learn more about the changes charity-rating agencies anticipate, please visit

Overhead includes necessary items that can improve the overall effectiveness of a charity, such as staff training, technology, and program evaluation. Without it, staff would not have the necessary tools to assist their clients. A lack of investment in this area has been linked to high turnover and poor work quality. In their letter, the above agencies state that investment in overhead is a necessity (like paying your light bill or fixing your roof) and can result in significantly more dollars being raised overall. More dollars means more meals, more books, and for MSAA, more lives improved.

We have all grown accustomed to looking at ratios and using these as a measurement of success. If this number doesn’t tell the full story, how do we know if a charity is “good?” If “how much do you spend on overhead?” is not the question to ask, what is? The rating agencies are creating questions donors should ask that provide an opportunity to engage with an organization and learn about their collaborations, their plans, their goals and strategies, and other meaningful metrics.

This is not to say that ratios do not matter. It is the duty of a charity to be transparent and accountable to its donors. Extreme overhead ratios can be a signal to look more closely at governance and organizational oversight. Those organizations that have been shown to spend little on actually serving their mission, need to be called to task. That kind of behavior should not be tolerated. Fortunately, the majority of organizations do not fall into this category. We cannot let the “bad apples” spoil the whole bunch.

“I want to thank you for the beautiful new wheelchair. I appreciate it so much. My old chair was being held together with duct tape and wasn’t very safe. I was surprised that it arrived so soon after I sent in my application and also by the lack of red tape.”

– Donna C. from California

This conversation is just beginning. We expect you’ll hear more in the coming months about ratios, ratings, and overhead. At MSAA, we are working to be sure we clearly communicate the results of our efforts and the impact we are having on the MS community. We want to share with you our stories, our successes, and our challenges. During the last fiscal year our impact includes:

  • 10,363 people assisted through the Client Services Helpline
  • 1,040,554 visits for vital information through our website
  • 3,434 pieces of safety, mobility, and symptom-management equipment were distributed
  • 1,389 people received financial support for necessary MRI scans
  • Approximately 215,000 MSAA publications distributed to provide information and support
  • 5,600 people attended our 156 nationwide in-person educational programs
  • 66,596 views of our 36 on-demand video programs
  • 7,174 new downloads for MSAA’s smartphone app, “My MS Manager”

In addition to the wealth of information and support MSAA provides, for those who would be unable to afford equipment or MRI scans on their own, MSAA’s programs make a tangible difference in day-to-day quality of life. This is attested to time and time again in the unsolicited testimonials of our clients.

When making your charitable-giving decisions, we encourage you to look beyond the cover of the book that is MSAA. Take a look inside, read a page or two, review our website, call our staff, attend one of our educational programs. Together we can continue to be a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today!