Written by Jonathan Goodman and Erin Wuertz
Charity Navigator is a nonprofit organization that uses a four-star rating system for nonprofit organizations to help individuals make informed decisions about which ones they want to donate money to (Finch 2014). Charity Navigator’s mission is to “make impactful philanthropy easier for all” the vision of Charity Navigator is “a world where philanthropy is inclusive, vibrant, and effective” (Charity Navigator1). The organization became a 501(c)3 public charity in 2012 after functioning for 11 years as a different type of nonprofit organization known as a “private foundation,” which means it will meet its own criteria to qualify for a rating for the first time in 2019 (Charity Navigator1).
Charity Navigator operates a website that allows its users both to view rating information for a specific charity and to search through its database for all charities that match the user’s specified criteria. With listings for every one of the 1.8 million nonprofit organizations in the United States and ratings for over 9,000, Charity Navigator is the largest independent evaluator of charities in the world (Charity Navigator5). Such evaluating agencies may also be referred to as “charity watchdogs” (Ferraro 2008). Charities that are rated by Charity Navigator have the option of displaying an official ratings seal on their own websites to alert their users to their rating (Finch 2014).
Star ratings are a simple metric to let Charity Navigator users know whether a charity is deemed “Excellent,” (4 stars) “Good,” (3 stars) “Needs Improvement,” (2 stars) or “Poor” (1 star). Charity Navigator uses the information from the websites and most recent 990s of qualifying charities to generate scores for their “Financial Health” and “Accountability & Transparency.” These two scores are averaged together for an overall score between 0 and 100 and a corresponding star rating. According to its website, Charity Navigator began in 2013 the process of incorporating a third score for “Results Reporting” into its rating system (Charity Navigator7). In order to receive a rating from Charity Navigator, a charity must be a U.S.-based organization of the type known as a 501(c)3 and must complete a tax return known as a 990 every year. It must also meet several other criteria related to the size of its annual revenue, how long it has been incorporated as a 501(c)3, how much “public support” it gets and the percentage of its expenses that go to fundraising and administration (Charity Navigator6).
In addition to listings and ratings, the Charity Navigator website features a wide range of “Top Ten Lists,” “Hot Topics” and “Tips for Donors,” along with several detailed articles about Charity Navigator’s history, mission, methodology and future plans (Charity Navigator1).
Charity Navigator was founded in New York 2001 by Pat Dugan, owner of a pharmaceutical sales business that had recently gone public and rendered him much wealthier than he had ever been. After Dugan’s business first went public in 1998, he wanted to use his newfound wealth to expand his charitable giving. However, three years later, a charity called Hale House to which Dugan had already been giving became embroiled in a high-profile scandal involving embezzlement, mismanagement of donor funds and maltreatment of children (Barlament 2013). This was not an isolated incident, but one of several highly publicized scandals involving charities that occurred throughout the 1990s (Gibelman 2004). Dugan created Charity Navigator in response to these scandals as a fact-based resource for donors to evaluate a charity’s worthiness before supporting it financially.
When Charity Navigator’s website went live in 2001, it featured ratings for only 1,100 charities and based its ratings solely on financial information from the charities’ publicly available 990s. Many of the charities which received ratings on the website felt that the rating system unfairly “reduced a charity’s work to its financial statements” (Barlament 2013) and criticized Charity Navigator for tarnishing their reputations by issuing poor ratings based on this “unfair measure.” In 2008, the United States government modified the 990 to collect information about the accountability and transparency practices of public charities (Ferraro 2008). As a result, Charity Navigator was able to begin basing its ratings on more than financial information alone (Charity Navigator5). Nevertheless, the website continued to be received skeptically by charities who saw its rating system as an unfair and incomplete evaluation of their work.
Since January 2013, Charity Navigator has undertaken a five-phase effort to add a third component to its star rating system. This project responds to common criticisms of Charity Navigator by incorporating information about how effectively charities perform work related to their mission. The eventual completion of the project will mark the launch of the 3.0 version of the Charity Navigator website (Charity Navigator7).
In 2016 Charity Navigator launched its enhanced Financial Health rating system, an update that rates an organizations long-term capacity by including three-year averaging and looking at a bigger picture for each nonprofit that it rates. The same year it announced its new Liabilities to Assets Ratio to help donors get a bigger picture of the organization they are wanting to support. Also in 2016 Charity Navigator announced the launch of a CN Advisory System which was designed to help donors avoid charity scam and alleged misconduct. Giving through Charity Navigator continues to grow with it reaching all time high on December 30th and 31st of 2017. (Charity Navigator5)
Since its launch in 2001, Charity Navigator has become a popular resource for individuals considering donations to the nonprofits that it ranks. In 2018, over 11 million users visited the site. The importance of the service provided by Charity Navigator and other watchdog groups is exemplified by a 2016 survey of randomly selected charitable donors. In response to the survey, 55% of donors reported sometimes or always checking the website of a charity for a ratings seal before donating and 93% reported a negative impact on their likelihood of donating to a charity when its website lacks a ratings seal (Finch 2014). Furthermore, a 2015 study found an additional effect whereby Charity Navigator’s ratings create a “collective reputation” among charities with similar missions and locations, leading to increased or decreased donations to individual charities when their peer organizations’ star ratings go up or down. (Grant & Potowski, 2015).
The Charity Navigator website has a demonstrated role as an important destination for information-seekers when high-profile news stories break about specific charities and causes. For example, in 2014, when a fundraising campaign to support research into cures for the disease known as ALS went viral, Charity Navigator received over 90,000 visits in a single day, driven largely by donors researching ALS charities. Two years earlier in 2012, more than 284,000 visits were made to the website following the release of a controversial documentary by the charity Invisible Children (Charity Navigator5).
The organization received praise from several newspapers and magazines and has been featured on several television stations as an expert in charitable giving. Charity Navigator continues to be the leader in expert analysis and commentary on the nonprofit sectors and organizations within the sector. The New York Time says, “Charity Navigator is one of the more influential charity assessment organizations.” (Charity Navigator5)
Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
The importance of Charity Navigator as a resource for donors, as discussed above, necessitates a close relationship between the service and the philanthropic sector at large. Charities rated well by Charity Navigator frequently display the official ratings seal on their websites and advertise their ratings in marketing and fundraising materials. For these organizations, the service can be a powerful tool for increasing their donations. Other charities which may be rated poorly risk being disqualified from consideration for giving from donors whose decision-making is strongly impacted by Charity Navigator’s ratings (Barker 2004). Those which do not qualify to be rated at all run the same risk. As a result, feelings about Charity Navigator among charities themselves are not universally positive and the service remains controversial.
Despite differences in perspective, Charity Navigator and charitable organizations within the philanthropic sector have worked in tandem to improve the ratings system, making it both fairer to charities and more informative for donors (The Overhead Myth). For example, in 2011, Charity Navigator responded to criticism that its ratings were based only on charities’ financial performance by adding a second score for “Accountability & Transparency” into its formula for generating star ratings (Charity Navigator5). More recently in 2013, Charity Navigator began its multi-phase effort to make its ratings system reflect the effectiveness with which charities assess the impact of their programs (“results reporting”). By “consulting industry leaders, academics, charity representatives, donors and others,” the organization hopes to ensure that the improved system is satisfactory to all who will be affected by it (Charity Navigator7). In 2016 Charity Navigator updated its rating system yet again to show the bigger picture of nonprofits and how the specific nonprofit is expected to sustain its self (Charity Navigator5).
Charity Navigator has a long-time goal to eventually have a category of results reporting on how well a charity is about achieving their mission. While this would be the ultimate tie to philanthropy giving donors an inside look at how well a specific organization is at what they are intended to do, this will take time as each nonprofit’s criteria in this area will be different. Figuring out what should be measured in this area is the hardest part but Charity Navigator is working hard to achieve that goal (The New York Times 2016).
Key Related Ideas
The “overhead myth”: a popular conception that the percentage of a charity’s revenue spent on fundraising and administrative activities, collectively known as “overhead,” can be used as the “sole indicator of nonprofit performance” (The Overhead Myth). Critics of Charity Navigator charge that it has perpetuated this belief by publicly penalizing charities for spending what its ratings system deems too much on these types of expenses. However, Charity Navigator has publicly disavowed the overhead myth and called on donors and charities to help them dispel it.
Executive compensation: the topic of what should be considered an appropriate salary for a high-level executive at a public charity is a matter of great debate among donors. Some believe it is acceptable for charity executives, like business executives, to be paid any amount as long as the benefit they provide outweighs their cost (Pallotta 2008). Others feel that it is immoral to allow donated funds to be used for large executive salaries rather than mission-related activities. Charity Navigator uses data from over 4,500 charities to publish an annual report on statistically normal practices for compensating executives (Charity Navigator2).
Results reporting: many charities gather detailed data about their work, in part for the purpose of demonstrating their successes to donors and the public. This process may also be referred to as “impact assessment” or “outcome reporting.” The quality of results reporting performed by charities is the next category of information that Charity Navigator plans to incorporate into its ratings system when it launches the third generation of its website (Charity Navigator6).
CN Advisory System: new platform launched in 2016 designed to help the public identify charities that are suspected of engaging in unethical or illegal actions (Charity Navigator8).
Accountability and Transparency: Accountability is the willingness and obligation to explain actions done by the nonprofit to its donors. Transparency is how timely and willing a nonprofit is to publish data about their organization. Nonprofit organizations are rated on accountability and transparency by using an organizations IRS Form 990 and organization website. (Charity Navigator1)
Important People Related to the Topic
- Pat Dugan founded Charity Navigator in 2001 with a $1.5 million gift and continued to provide much of its funding until 2007. He created the website to help donors find factual, unbiased information about charities after a series of high-profile scandals involving charities had eroded much of the public trust in the philanthropic sector. Dugan remained on Charity Navigator’s Board of Directors until June 2016, when he retired at the age of 80 (Stiffman 2016).
- Michael Thatcher is the current and third CEO of Charity Navigator as of August 2015. Thatcher is a former Microsoft executive whose experience with technology represents a shift for Charity Navigator. According to the website’s founder, Charity Navigator hopes Thatcher will oversee a successful expansion of its ratings system while increasing the number of donors who utilize the service. Thatcher is expected to preside over a doubling in the number of charities rated by the end of 2016 and an even larger increase in revenue growth (Hrywna 2015). Thatcher will also continue the work of his predecessor to improve Charity Navigator’s ratings system for all stakeholders.
- Dan Pallotta is a leading critic of charity watchdog groups and the “overhead myth.” Pallotta is a consultant who helped transform the Avon Walk to End Breast Cancer and other similar events into massive-scale fundraisers grossing tens of millions of dollars annually. However, a television expose accusing his company of spending too much on “overhead” (see “Key Related Ideas”) eventually led him to close the company (Pallotta 2008). Since 2008, Pallotta has written two books (Uncharitable  and Charity Case ), given a TED Talk and founded an organization called the Charity Defense Council, all with a shared mission of challenging public perceptions about what is appropriate behavior for charities.
Related Nonprofit Organizations
- GuideStar is a peer organization to Charity Navigator, aggregating and displaying information about charities to be accessed for free by potential donors or other interested parties. Though GuideStar also issues a ratings seal, it is neither a charity evaluator nor a watchdog, but a public service dedicated to sharing information in an accessible manner. GuideStar, like Charity Navigator, is free to both charities and users, but allows charities to update their own “profiles” and focuses on integrating and sharing data with other online services such as AmazonSmile and Blackbaud. https://www.guidestar.org/
- BBB Wise Giving Alliance is a charity evaluator that rates charities based on a wide range of criteria including their governance, oversight, mission effectiveness, finances and fundraising practices. Currently, BBB WGA’s website (give.org) reports on approximately 1,300 nationally soliciting charities, while local chapters of the associated Better Business Bureau report on an additional 10,000 locally soliciting charities (BBB Wise Giving Alliance). The service charges charities an annual fee anywhere between $1,000 and $15,000 to display its seal on their website. In a study surveying randomly selected donors, BBB WGA’s ratings seal was the most likely to influence a donor’s giving decision when displayed on a charity’s website. Charity Navigator’s ratings seal was the sixth most influential and GuideStar’s ranked seven. https://www.bbb.org/central-texas/programs-services/bbb-charities/wise-giving-resources/bbb-wise-giving-alliance/
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) is an independent nonprofit that specifically monitors grantmaking foundations rather than all charities. Unlike other prominent watchdog groups, it does not aggregate and share information on individual organizations, nor does it rate them. Instead, NCRP “philanthropic practices and carefully and systematically researches potential areas for reform.” NCRP advocates for changes in public and private policy that it believes will improve the “accountability and responsiveness” of foundations whose primary function is to fund charities. Since its founding in 1976, NCRP boasts several advocacy accomplishments, including influencing community foundations to increase their giving to low-income communities. https://www.ncrp.org/
- GlobalGiving is a global crowdfunding community that connects donors, companies and nonprofits. The largest of its kind, GlobalGiving helps nonprofits all over the world access resources and support systems that allow the organizations to be more effective and in turn, make the world a better place. https://www.globalgiving.org/
When you or your family donates, do they first consult an organization like Charity Navigator? If not, why do you think they should know the resource is out there?
- Barker, Robert. “Charity Begins with a Fiscal Check-up.” Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2002-11-10/charity-begins-with-a-fiscal-checkup
- Barlament, Laura. "Question Everything." Wagner Magazine, July 19, 2013, http://wagner.edu/wagnermagazine/question-everything.
- BBB Wise Giving Alliance. More About Us – https://www.bbb.org/central-texas/programs-services/bbb-charities/wise-giving-resources/bbb-wise-giving-alliance/Charity Navigator1. https://www.charitynavigator.org/
- Charity Navigator2. Excessive Charity CEO Pay is Not the Norm. http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=4404
- Charity Navigator3. How Do We Calculate the Overall Score and Star Rating? http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1287
- Charity Navigator4. Results Reporting: Phases of Implementation. http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1977
- Charity Navigator5. The Timeline of Charity Navigator. http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1957
- Charity Navigator6. What Criteria Must a Charity Meet to be Rated? http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=32
- Charity Navigator7. Where we are Headed: CN 3.0. http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1193
- Charity Navigatoy8. Charity Navigator’s New Advisory System https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=4247
- Finch, Janna. “Survey: Do Ratings From Watchdog Groups Impact Giving Decisions?” The Able Altruist, July 9, 2014, http://able-altruist.softwareadvice.com/survey-do-watchdog-ratings-impact-giving-0714/
- Ferraro, Patrick. "Unveiled: The IRS Introduces the Redesigned Form 990." GuideStar Newsletter, January 2008, https://www.guidestar.org/Articles.aspx?path=/rxa/newsarticles/2008/unveiled-the-irs-introduces-the-redesigned-form-990.aspx
- Gibelman, Margaret. "A Loss of Credibility: Patterns of Wrongdoing Among Nongovernmental Organizations." Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Vol. 15, No. 4, 2004: 355-381. In ProQuest [database online]. Available from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Libraries.
- Grant, Laura E. & Potoski, Matthew. “Collective Reputations Affect Donations to Nonprofits.”
- Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 34 (2015): 4, 835–852
- GlobalGiving. https://www.globalgiving.org/
- GuideStar. GuideStar Nonprofit Reports & Forms 990 for Donors, Grantmakers & Businesses. https://www.guidestar.org
- Hrywna, Mark. "New CEO at Charity Navigator." The Non Profit Times. http://www.thenonprofittimes.com/news-articles/new-ceo-at-charity-navigator/
- National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Who We Are. https://www.ncrp.org/about-us
- The New York Times. 2016. Charity Navigator Tweaks Its Rating System. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/28/your-money/charity-navigator-tweaks-its-rating-system.html.
- The Overhead Myth. Moving Toward an Overhead Solution. http://overheadmyth.com/
- Pallotta, Dan. Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential. Medford: Tufts University Press, 2008.
- Stiffman, Eden. “Charity Navigator Founder Hands Control to Tech-Savvy Successor.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy. https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Charity-Navigator-Founder-Says/236902
This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017.
This briefing paper was updated by a student taking a philanthropic studies course in 2019 at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.