NEW YORK -- Was a gift to an environmental advocacy group on your Christmas list? If so, do you know exactly where that group's money goes? Probably not.
You may imagine that some sort of government watchdog unit stops charities from soliciting if they spend too much of the money they collect on themselves. But that's generally not so. You're the chief watchdog. So don't donate a dime until you:
* Check the charity's exact name. Many have similar names and purposes but different approaches. The aggressive Rainforest Action Network, for example, urges boycotts and bans of timber imports to save the tropical rain forests. Rainforest Alliance, by contrast, would rather make deals than boycott. Make sure that you're sending your money to the group with which you agree.
* Check the whole program by getting all of the organization's brochures. The mailing piece won't tell you everything the charity does. Full knowledge may make a difference as to whether you want to support the group. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund litigates energy issues and also seeks to curb pollution through the use of free-market forces. American Rivers fights dams, although water power is a darling of clean-energy groups. Greenpeace is one of the movement's stuntmen, performing tricks such as stopping a Trident submarine-missile test by sailing into the area.
* Check where the money goes. Ask any telephone solicitor whether he is a professional fund-raiser (usually so) and how much of each dollar donated goes to the charity. If you don't get a good answer, don't give. Also, ask for the charity's audited financial report, including a statement of functional expenses, and don't send the organization a penny until you get it. This report shows you how much is spent on program vs. fund-raising and overhead.
Take the Defenders of Wildlife, which protects wildlife species. Out of a total of $4.3 million in expenses in 1989, $2 million went for fund-raising and overhead and $2.3 million for program (not counting donated services). Expenses ate up almost half the budget. Contrast this with the Natural Resources Defense Council, whose expenses took only 23 percent of the budget, with the rest of the money going toward the program.
But then, what's program? In its mail solicitation, the Defenders of Wildlife sent me a list of more than 850 endangered and threatened species. That list helps Defenders attribute part of its mailing expenses to "program" -- a ploy most charities use.
There are two private watchdog groups, the National Charities Information Bureau, 19 Union Square West, 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10003, and the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, Dept. 023, Washington, D.C. 20042. Both groups set standards for ethical fund-raising and operations, review the material that charities send them voluntarily and note which charities fail their tests.
For their latest ratings on charities, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the addresses above for the information bureau's free "Wise Giving Guide" and up to three free reports on individual charities; or $2 for the advisory service's "Give But Give Wisely"; or for three free reports on individual charities from the advisory service.
Unfortunately, only a few environmental groups submit their financial information for scrutiny by the two groups. Greenpeace USA, for example, hasn't cooperated, which is enough to keep that $50 million organization off my giving list.
Others violating the advisory service's standards today are Defenders of Wildlife, which has advertised a Defenders credit card without disclosing what portion of the revenues the organization gets; the National Audubon Society, for sending out unordered postcards without telling recipients that they don't have to pay for them; and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, for failing to provide audited statements and other financial information.
Incidentally, the National Charities Information Bureau is, in some cases, sending out 5-year-old data on charities. Seems to me that wouldn't meet its own standards of good administration and disclosure.