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Ranking the Charity Rankings

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Notes from the CEO
Red ink splotch

Well, it’s the start of a New Year – a time of renewal and optimism. Hopefully, charity executives are feeling the same way – having recovered from the tightening of chest, shortness of breath and, in my case, the departure of a few hairs from my rapidly thinning mane – often diagnosed as EOYCRS. Yes, that’s right ‘end of the year charity ranking syndrome’.

Each year, different groups and organizations decide to assess charities and comment on those that they judge to be good and not so good.

Upon the release of each new ranking list the stress starts – are we on the list? If not, aren’t we good enough?  If yes, did we get a passing grade?  If not, why the heck not? Did we get a poor grade?  If yes, we know we are better than that! Will this impact our donors?

While it is great that media outlets are interested in the charitable sector, (any publicity is good publicity??) the issue of ranking is extremely controversial. The arbitrary passing of judgement in an effort to determine good and poor can be seen as a provision of a public service. Assisting members of the general public in sifting through the avalanche of charitable requests and attempting to make giving decisions easier can sit well with readers and consumers.

However, the challenge of fairness, objectivity and even finding the right methodology is enormous. Of particular distress is that rankings invariably are skewed to having a heavy emphasis on the cost side of the business. Unfortunately this continues to perpetuate the belief that ensuring adequate resources to deliver quality programs is a bad thing. As someone who has been working in the charitable and nonprofit sector for decades, the growing negative perception about ‘cost of administration’ is genuinely terrifying.

So this year I have decided to rank the charity rankings.

Grading of the methodologies is entirely arbitrary. It represents the degree to which my hackles were raised, or the amount of applause that was due, or if the criteria provoked truly stressful physiological reactions.

I took a look at recent rankings from two major Canadian publications and unfortunately I would have to assign a D score. I have been accused of being a tough marker in the past, and have again used a tonne of red ink.

The methodologies being employed paint an incomplete picture. From solely relying on T3010 data (vs. annual reports/audited financial statements) to the complete absence of questions about impact, value and transformation they are missing the essence of the work of charitable organizations. Where is the assessment of the value of mental health services to a beneficiary? What about the long-term impact that comes from young people participating in art and music? How about the value of standing up for the environment? Also ignored by the rankings is the inherent difficulty in finding a one-size-fits-all metric for the charitable sector. Is it reasonable to assume the same criteria can apply to a symphony, a soccer team, a hospital and a homeless shelter?

In the judgement of this author (and aren’t rankings all about judgement?), these rankings don’t get a ‘passing grade’.

So… I’m putting out a personal pledge to address EOTYCRS. My New Year’s Resolution is to meet with the authors of the reports and explain how, while their rankings issues may be good for business, they are doing significant long term harm to the sector.

About the Author

Bruce served as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada for ten years and prior to that as the organization’s Vice-President of Marketing. Bruce is bilingual, has led major change initiatives and developed long and innovative partnerships with corporations and other charities. Bruce has been active in many organizations, including two YMCAs, the Ontario Senior Games and Kinsmen and Kinette Clubs. He brings passion, knowledge and skill to everything he does.

Bruce holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Sports Administration and a Masters in Management in the Voluntary Sector.

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Submitted by Kristen Lawrie ... on
Rightly so, thank you Imagine Canada for issuing a statement in comment to charitable rankings with very narrow focuses!

Submitted by Karen Ormerod on
Well said my friend! It's about time that the tables were turned - the depth of the lack of understanding about the impact of our sector is disheartening.

Submitted by Kathryn Ross on
It is time the charitable sector responded to arbitrary scoring by groups which demonstrate little understanding of the goals & objectives of the sector. I look forward to following this story.

Submitted by Eliza Olson on
There rankings are unfair to the small organizations and to environmental groups. I have resisted filling out the applications that have been coming my way from certain organizations. I think they are just snooping and not really interested in what the Society does. So in my view that particular organization's questions are just a waste of my time that I could be putting towards writing a grant or something else that is useful. Thank you for your comments

Submitted by Greg Thomson on
Absolutely! Let's move on to the discussions of assessing charitable impact. This is what donors and charities truly need to help the sector flourish. It's not assessing charities that's flawed, it's how it's done. Let's start sharing the data on the value of mental health services, participation in art and music and standing up for the environment. I would love to be a part of those discussions Bruce!

Submitted by Cathy Brothers,... on
Thanks for your courage and leadership, Bruce. The punitive scoring for Charity Rankings is so mean-spirited. Hurray for your emphasis on impact and outcomes. Especially, thanks for recognition of the diversity within charities and the absurdity of using same framework for ranking them all.

Submitted by Joel Porter on
I have yet to see a ranking that understands the very major difference between one single, very large charity having only one legal form, with only one set of books, and that submits only one big T3010 return each year, to a multi-legal entity charity (such as any Federation structure), comprised of say 120 independent charitable parts all working under one banner in a formalized, symbiotic relationship. To even attempt comparing Big Brothers Big Sisters for example, you must add up all of its individual parts, and view them all together in the aggregate as a whole organization. A ranking that doesn't at least get this basic context straight, winds up comparing watermelons to individual grapes. There is a difference! Watermelon wine anyone?

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