The Importance of Charity Ratings: Does a Charity's Rating Matter?

The Importance of Charity Ratings: Does a Charity's Rating Matter?

A charity rating is a detailed assessment of how a nonprofit organization operates. The overall score of an organization is determined by comparing it to industry standards. Charities that consistently perform below industry standards will receive a low rating whereas charities that consistently perform above industry standards will be rated highly.

Charity ratings are provided by multiple charity assessment organizations such as CharityWatch and GiveWell, but Charity Navigator provides the most comprehensive nonprofit rating system available. On their website users can search for charities and uncover a detailed breakdown about their score based on four factors: Impact & Measurement, Accountability & Finance, Culture & Community, and Leadership & Adaptability. Charity Navigator assigns each charity a score on a scale of zero to four stars - zero being "Very Poor" and four being "Great."

The purpose of organizations like Charity Navigator is to help individuals and businesses decide whether or not a nonprofit can be trusted to allocate donations to their mission effectively. If you spent a great deal of time fundraising only for that money to be put to improper use, it would be upsetting. Charity assessment organizations are in place to prevent issues like this arising. By choosing a nonprofit with a high score you can reduce the risk of an ineffective donation.

In the remainder of this article we'll go into more depth exploring charity ratings. We'll look into different types of charity rating systems, on what factors charities are evaluated, and how to interpret the results of a rating. By the conclusion you'll have all the information required to assess the legitimacy of a charity before making a contribution.

The Importance of Charity Ratings

Charity assessment organizations publish their ratings with one goal in mind: to help donors understand the efficiency of a nonprofit when raising and spending funds. Through these platforms individuals and businesses can gather enough information about various charities to make an educated decision about which to support. Donors are understandably cautious when it comes to their contributions and rating systems like these allow them to be more careful with their giving.

Credible charity rating systems benefit both donors and nonprofits, here's a breakdown:

Benefits for Donors

  • Financial Impact: Charities with a high rating are likely to make more effective use of a donation. This means that the donor can have peace of mind knowing that their contribution will largely positively impact the cause that they are supporting.
  • Financial Sustainability: The financial sustainability of a nonprofit can be assessed through this type of rating system. A charity with good financial sustainability will set aside less of a donation for overheads meaning that a larger portion of the funds contributes directly to the cause.
  • Charitable Transparency: Charity ratings help to expose charities that are obfuscating their intentions. A low rating could mean that an organization isn't supporting the cause that it claims to.

Benefits for Nonprofits

  • Improved Contributions: A high charity rating leads to increased revenue because supporters feel safer contributing to your organization's cause.
  • Increased Trust: Trust is a vital component of a relationship between a nonprofit and its supporters. High charity ratings help nonprofits to establish a baseline level of trust with their donors and stakeholders.
  • Greater Exposure: Many ratings websites have dedicated sections that help users discover top-rated nonprofits. By achieving a strong rating your nonprofit can help to expose itself to potential donors by being included in these exclusive lists.

The importance of charity ratings is double-sided. The first side helps donors to make informed decisions and the second side helps organizations to further their mission. Both the organization and its supporters can benefit from charity rating systems which is what makes them crucial to the industry.

Types of Rating Systems for Charities

Each unique charity assessment organization has its own rating system and methodology. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to assessing the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization. This is why it's important to dig a little bit deeper than the charity ratings themselves. As a donor you should also understand the methodology used to determine each individual rating. This can help you to evaluate whether or not the charity ratings are fair and accurate. Below is a guide to the methodology used by two of the industry's leading charity assessment organizations:

Charity Navigator

Charity Navigator, an American organization that reviews national charities, is built upon a methodology that guides donors via four beacons. Research is conducted into these areas to assess each charity's effectiveness regarding them. The beacons in question are: Impact & Measurement, Accountability & Finance, Culture & Community, and Leadership & Adaptability.

Impact & Measurement helps donors to learn how the benefits of a nonprofit's work compares to its costs of operation. Accountability & Finance ratings determine a charity's financial transparency, accountability, efficiency, and sustainability. Culture & Community analyses the practices implemented by a charity to improve its organizational strength. And finally Leadership & Adaptability focuses on the ability of a nonprofit to adapt to changing circumstances.

A combination of the scores for each beacon is displayed as a rating on a scale of zero to four stars. Top-rated charities have more stars.


CharityWatch is another American foundation that conducts research into national charities to assess their effectiveness. Their preferred methodology revolves around analysis of financial documents including financial statements, tax forms, annual reports, and state filings.

Following this analysis CharityWatch performs two calculations:

  1. Program %: Indicates the percentage of revenue that a nonprofit spends on its charitable programs.
  2. Cost to Raise $100: Highlights the cost of a charity to raise $100 of cash donations.

Once these calculations have been performed charities are assigned a rating on a scale of A+ to F. Similarly to grades given to children in school A+ is more favorable than F.

As we can see there are different approaches taken by each research foundation. Charity Navigator rates performance based on four beacons that they themselves have established whereas CharityWatch is more interested in financial documents and a mathematical strategy. Ultimately nonprofits are rated on different systems from starts to letters but a quick comparison across charity assessment platforms will help to determine the reliability of each rating.

Interpreting Charity Reviews

While a brief glance at a report from a charity rating foundation can provide a lot of information it's crucial to understand how to interpret reviews in more detail. It's possible to overlook certain things without a deeper dive into a report. For example a 3-star organization, on Charity Navigator, could have an extremely poor Leadership & Adaptability score which would go unnoticed during a surface-level look.

As covered earlier you can determine the effectiveness of a charity, using Charity Navigator, by looking at the number of stars it has been awarded. A charity with zero stars performs poorly compared to most nonprofits whereas a charity with four stars is more effective than the majority of the industry. However Charity Navigator uses a weighted system based on available information. American Red Cross is "weighted as follows: 35% Accountability & Finance, 44% Impact & Measurement, 9% Leadership & Adaptability, 12% Culture & Community." This means that the rating of American Red Cross is based mostly on the Impact & Measurement beacon. What this indicates is that the information available to come to a conclusion on this beacon was greater than for others.

Ratings on CharityWatch are assigned a letter grade. A+ being the most favorable score and F being the least favorable. Therefore you'll likely be seeking nonprofits with an A+ or A rating. But what does an A+ score mean? There are two conclusions to be drawn from a high score on CharityWatch:

  1. The nonprofit spends most of its revenue on charitable programs. For example Friends of Animals, an A+ charity, has a Program % score of 94%. This means that the organization is spending 94% of its revenue on charitable programs.
  2. It's cheap for the nonprofit to raise funds. For example Friends of Animals spends an average of $3 to raise $100 of contributions.

It's important to cross reference charities using the information available from different research organizations. Don't rely on a single score to come to a conclusion. Check scores against other charity rating websites to ensure that the reputation of the charity is consistent across each platform.

Choosing the Right Charity

Now that you understand the importance of charity ratings and how to interpret them you'll have to make an important decision - choosing the right nonprofit to receive your contribution.

As a quick indicator of an effective charity you can use overall scores from charity assessment websites. Through Charity Navigator you can identify 4-star organizations and via CharityWatch you can locate A+ nonprofits. These scores provide a quick overview of the effectiveness of a charity but it's always advised to do some further reading to understand the basis on which the score was awarded.

If you're looking for options when it comes time to donate you can use the "Discover Charities" section of the Charity Navigator website. This will provide you with a list of nonprofits that are related to current events, popular charities, top-rated organizations, and you can even view charities that have achieved a perfect score.

Similarly CharityWatch has a "Top-Rated Charities" section on its website. Here you'll discover a list of charities with high scores categorized by their cause which ranges from animals and cancer to mental health and public policy. The individual score of each nonprofit is clearly displayed in the list which makes it simple to scroll through and find an organization that aligns with your preferences.

Maximizing the Impact of Donations

There is no better giving than informed giving. Education helps us to make decisions that have a greater effect. In the realm of nonprofits this means maximizing the impact of donations. The significance of research and further reading cannot be stressed enough. Through the use of online charity assessment platforms and cross referencing you can gather enough information to ensure the effectiveness of your contribution. While it's unlikely that you'll witness the specific outcome of your individual donation you can rest assured that top-rated charities will steward your donation with care. This is why it's of great importance to choose the right organization when offering support.

Let's visualize an effective donation using information available on CharityWatch. For the purpose of this example the hypothetical donation will be $1,000 and will be offered to Population Services International which is an A+ American reproductive health charity that works with individuals around the world:

  • Cost to Raise $100: On average it costs Population Services International only $1 to raise $100 in cash contributions. Therefore it would have cost the organization only $10 to procure the $1,000 donation provided resulting in a $990 contribution.
  • Program %: Population Services International has a score of 90%. This means that $891 of the resulting $990 donated will be used toward charitable programs that combat reproductive health issues and provide safe abortions.
  • Overall Impact: In monetary terms the $1,000 donation is worth $891 to the charitable cause which is roughly 89% of its original value. This would be considered a successful donation with a large impact.

Donations like the hypothetical example above help to achieve philanthropic goals by providing charitable causes with as much funding as possible. Choosing an organization that scores poorly on charity assessment websites will lessen the impact of your contribution. You should always aim to support charities with a proven track record. This is an excellent way to ensure that every dollar is performing to its potential.


Q: What are charity ratings, and why are they important for donors?

A: A charity rating is an assessment of the effectiveness of a nonprofit organization across multiple parameters. Depending on the charity assessment organization these parameters will vary. Charity ratings are of great importance to donors because they help to identify credible charities that engage in careful stewardship of donated funds. This ensures that individuals are able to maximize the potential of their contributions.

Q: How do charity rating systems evaluate nonprofit organizations?

A: Exactly how a charity is assessed can vary between charity assessment organizations. Generally they are rated on a set of parameters and the scores are combined to provide an overall rating. Organizations like Charity Navigator focus on intangible details including Impact & Measurement, Accountability & Finance, Culture & Community, and Leadership & Adaptability. Whereas websites like CharityWatch take a mathematical approach that combines information from financial documents such as financial statements, tax forms, annual reports, and state filings.

Q: Can charity ratings help donors determine which organizations are the most effective?

A: Absolutely yes and donors should be encouraged to use charity ratings when choosing a final destination for their contributions. The majority of charity assessment websites have tools available for identifying top-rated charities and these lists are often organized by the type of charitable cause that is supported. This makes it simple for users to locate a suitable nonprofit to receive their donation.

Q: Are there any drawbacks or limitations to relying solely on charity ratings?

A: Yes, there are drawbacks to relying on charity ratings. For example there might not be a sufficient amount of data available to rate a charity accurately. Charity Navigator does a fantastic job of combating this by weighting ratings based on the availability of information. It's advised to cross reference ratings to ensure that they are consistent across multiple platforms.


To conclude let's answer the question posed in the title: does a charity's rating matter?

Quite simply yes; a charity's rating does matter. Charity assessment organizations are charities themselves which means they are supported by donations rather than fees paid for assessment. This helps to ensure that the rating system used retains its credibility. These organizations have no reason to provide charities with favorable or unfavorable reviews meaning that they offer users a truthful overview of the effectiveness of each nonprofit.

To recap we have covered several key points in this article. Firstly its crucial to remember that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between charity ratings, donors, and nonprofits. Donors can use ratings to determine the financial impact of their contribution while nonprofits benefit from improved donations and increased trust when they are able to achieve a favorable charity rating. Secondly there are multiple charity assessment organizations with Charity Navigator and CharityWatch being two of the big hitters. It's vital to cross reference between these platforms and understand how to interpret their data. Finally your choice of charity is an important decision. Selecting a nonprofit with a proven track record is a great way to maximize the potential of your donation.

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