Help for PIOs to know who’s legit or not in the non-profit world

Eric Singer

Keeping the public safe from scammers is a 24/7 mission-essential job for public information officers, especially during a crisis. As a PIO, you may be bombarded with calls from members of the public asking what they can do to help, and calls from non-profits offering their services. There are safeguards for an information officer to make sure you and your community are in the know.

Gary McDonald is the Executive Director at Lighthouse Counseling and Family Resource Center in the Sacramento, California, region. He told me about valuable, free resources to help identify which non-profits are legitimate: “It’s really sad that so many scammers come out during difficult times.” McDonald believes the best avenue to research a non-profit organization is at GuideStar, which provides information on non-profits of all shapes and sizes: “It’s free to access. You just have to set up an account. Once you have an account, you type the name of the non-profit into the search box. Make sure it’s spelled correctly and then it will give you the information on that non-profit.”

McDonald says that most non-profits will have their Form 990s on that site. A 990 is a tax return for a non-profit: “Probably the most important part of the 990 tax return is the page on statement of functional expenses. Basically, it lists their total expenses for the year and divides it into programs, services, expenses, management, general expenses and fundraising expenses.” McDonald told me it’s simple math. Look at the bottom of the page to find the organization’s total fundraising expenses, and divide it into the agency’s total expenses and you’ll get a percentage. That percentage, he says, is the key to knowing if a particular non-profit is a good investment: “For us, our fundraising expenses were 2.16 percent, which is very, very low. For every dollar we spent, 96 cents funded our programs. It makes us one of the most efficient non-profits in the United States. The average for non-profits is about 80 cents of every dollar that they spend going to programs. If it’s under 80 cents, then you have to wonder what’s going on there. You might want to research that company a little bit more.” That research can take you to your local Better Business Bureau, or a call to the Secretary of State’s office to see what information it has on that non-profit organization.

In addition to the search for answers about non-profits, McDonald also says public information officers and other members of the emergency management community need to remember that work can’t be all consuming, even in a crisis: “For people who are working remotely from home, it is easier for them to lose track of time and work 10-12 hours because they are dedicated people, but that is not always healthy. It’s important to take scheduled breaks throughout the day and set an alarm to know when to end their work day.” McDonald also believes crisis managers should schedule time for physical activity, downtime and to maintain social contacts: “We talk about social distancing but it is really about physical distancing. What we want to do is maintain our social contacts. We should reach out to our family, to our friends and possibly take the time to heal past relationships. The worst thing we can do is to isolate ourselves.”

Gary McDonald is the Executive Director at Lighthouse Counseling and Family Research Center. Thanks for reading this story. Click on the Mp3 link below to hear my entire interview with Gary McDonald. 

Flash Briefing – April, 28 2020