Americans just love feeling philanthropic. In any debate over cutting tax breaks in the income tax system, the deduction for charitable donations is always held sacred - even more than that other sacred cow, the mortgage deduction.
So why, asks Ken Stern in his new book, "With Charity for All," do we spend so little time thinking about the charities to whom we give our billions?
Stern is a veteran of the nonprofit world, having spent nine years running National Public Radio, the nonprofit organization with which most of us are more familiar than any other. Thanks to his experience and a wealth of further research, "With Charity for All" makes many important points about how little we understand about the needs and the operations of even the most prominent global philanthropies. The book opens with a telling anecdote about the American Red Cross and its response to the disaster of 9/11.
Material and personnel were deployed to the wrong places. Logistics broke down so badly that the organization was unable to get supplies, volunteers, food or cots for first responders quickly to the Pentagon - which was all of two miles away.
What did work to perfection was the Red Cross' fundraising apparatus, which collected $543 million for its Liberty Fund to aid the attack's victims. This was far more than could reasonably be spent on direct relief. Yet when Red Cross President Bernadine Healy decided to divert the excess funds to fix what 9/11 had shown was broken - improving its relief infrastructure, telecommunications and logistics management - she provoked a firestorm. Congressional hearings, threats of prosecution for fraud, the whole instrumentality of public outrage was deployed against the Red Cross. Healy soon resigned.
"With Charity for All" marks an important advance in educating the donor public. Whether they're writing occasional checks for 50 bucks or making multimillion-dollar bequests, donors too often give to the wrong organizations and for the wrong reasons. "With Charity for All" is a good guide to what makes an effective charity, and how to figure out that the one getting your money meets that standard.