There are more than 50,000 charities in New Jersey (1.5 million in the nation). A week doesn’t go by in which I don’t receive three to four telephone calls from charities seeking funds and I have enough address stickers to wallpaper a good portion of my bathroom. With so many choices how does one pick worthy charities to support?

By far the best way is to volunteer at a charity on a few occasions over a couple of months and see the agency on a first-hand basis. This will enable you to see if the programs are well-attended, if the staff interacts with the clients in a respectful manner, and that staff is working hard (not a lot of personal phone calls or hobnobbing).

How well is the agency’s facility maintained, including the outside and the bathrooms? Is there graffiti on the inside or outside walls? A lack of graffiti in a neighborhood replete with graffiti may be an indication that clients and neighbors view the agency in a positive light.

Is it obvious that certain folks are in charge — making sure that things get accomplished? Are people wandering around aimlessly?

Does it look like agency staff is constantly changing? Are there always vacancies? High staff turnover is a bad sign and usually translates into poor program performance. The same goes for vacancies that go long unfilled. If this is endemic to an organization, it negatively affects program continuity and frequently translates into poor program performance.

How are volunteers, or unpaid staff, treated? If you didn’t get a proper orientation and training regarding what is expected of you and who you report to, it probably means that the same occurs with staff. Similarly, if you were not thanked for your efforts, you can assume the staff is treated in a similar fashion.

Do you see a commitment to technology? It is important that charities embrace and utilize new technology to enhance operations, communicate with volunteers and donors, and raise funds in an efficient, economical manner.

Even if you are not an expert on the services provided by the agency you are volunteering at, you can obtain valuable insight on the quality of the services rendered through observation. While this is easier if you are volunteering at soup kitchen, food pantry or food bank, it is possible by watching to obtain important insight regarding the delivery of addiction treatment, mental health, or child sexual abuse services by seeing if standard protocols are followed, whether the staff is entering information on services rendered following client visits and whether careful instructions are given to clients following visits. All of these are indicators of the provision of quality services.

If you can’t volunteer, don’t know anyone with first-hand knowledge of the charity and the charity you are considering is not rated by Charity Navigator, go to the charity’s website and look for the information below. If it is not available ask the charity to provide it (if they are reluctant to supply it, consider another charity).

1. Review the charity’s IRS Form 990 or 900-EZ which must be filed by all charities with an annual income of $25,000 or more. It contains basic information on the charity’s income (look for diversity); spending, reserves, executive salaries, the percentage of funds spent on programs (look for at least 70 percent to go towards programs).

2. Who is on the agency’s board of trustees? Do you know anybody you can ask about the agency? How often does the board meet? Are the agency’s minutes available on the agency’s website?

3. Does the agency have strategic and a fundraising plans? The absence of these plans can often signal that an agency operates by the seat of its pants. If adhered to, strategic/fundraising plans can be blueprints for accountability and action. While some agency operate pretty well without a written plans, the absence of a plan is generally a bad sign.

4. Does the agency indicate that it is partnering with other non-profits? An agency that is involved in various collaborations usually suggests that other agencies see it as a competent partner that fulfills its responsibilities.

5. Does the agency’s website provide important information on the agency; scope of services; agency’s history, mission and purpose; past newsletters; basic budgetary data and evidence that the program is successful? Good communication is essential for an effective fundraising program.

With the enormous growth of the charitable sector, individual donors have a mind-boggling array of charities to choose from. By far the best way to pick the charities to support is to see them in action. If you can’t do that answers to the five questions listed can provide insight as to whether a charity is fulfilling its mission.

Stoolmacher is president of the Stoolmacher Consulting Group, which advises charities in fundraising and strategic planning.

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