Another part of Charity Navigator’s financial rating system is to have reserves for a rainy day. In order to get a top rating from Charity Navigator, an organization must have 12 months of operating expenses in the bank (depending on the sector: lower for food banks and relief organizations; higher for foundations, libraries, parks, foundations, etc.)
I fully agree that nonprofits should build reserves. There are natural ebbs and flows of both revenues and expenses in the nonprofit world; usually one is ebbing while the other is flowing. Additionally, funders sometimes have demands that are off-mission, counterproductive, or political. You need a bank of money so that you can say no to quick bucks at the long-term expense of your mission. And you want to be able to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities as well as preparing for unforeseen difficulties.
Because it has a basis in need, this may be CN’s most helpful financial metric, which is much like the Taller Than Mickey Rooney Award: you can still be very short and win.
Remember, Charity Navigator purports to be a guide to where you should give your money as a donor. And there are two problems with it as guidance to donors.
First, it rewards the hoarding of money. There literally is no upper limit on how much you can have in reserves and still max out your reserves rating. In fact, they brag about this on their site:
“Givers should know that other independent evaluators of charities tend not to measure a charity’s capacity. Indeed, charities that maintain large reserves of assets or working capital are occasionally penalized by other evaluators. In our view, a charity’s financial capacity is just as important as its financial efficiency. By showing growth and stability, charities demonstrate greater fiscal responsibility, not less, for those are the charities that will be more capable of pursuing short- and long-term results for every dollar they receive from givers.” (here)
The simple question is would you rather fund an organization that ten months of expenses in the bank or ten years?
My inclination, as I would think most carbon-based lifeforms’ inclinations would be, is the ten-month organization. If you have ten years of reserves in the bank, you are almost certainly not funding worthy projects and not investing in your infrastructure or growth.
BBB asks that you cap your reserves at three years to make sure you aren’t doing this — it seems like a better practice that CN is actively avoiding. Or, put well from ACEVO, Charity Finance Group and the Institute of Fundraising:
“Charities need to justify their reserves. Holding a high level of cover for risks and unforeseen events appears sensible, but is this right if worthwhile projects are going unfunded? Charity funds are meant to be spent; therefore charities should be able to provide solid, considered justification for keeping funds back as reserves and not spending them.”
Nonprofits do not exist for the purpose of existing. They exist to solve a societal problem. If you have too much in reserves, you are privileging your existence over your mission. And to that I say
Second, it advises against giving to those who may need it most. Let’s say there are three nonprofits, both with substantial (let’s say 15 months worth of) reserves. Disaster strikes: a grant that makes up more than half of each of their budgets dries up. Thankfully, they have prepared for this rainy day and, after consulting with their boards, they each take action:
- Nonprofit 1 has a policy that they will not go below 12 months of reserves, per Charity Navigator’s advice. They spend some from their reserves, but have to make small cuts in program and large ones in infrastructure to keep their bank balance solid.
- Nonprofit 2 also believes strongly in a solid reserve, but not at the expense of their programmatic activities. They dip into their reserves, taking them below the 12-month mark (knowing they will be penalized even more if they cut program activity), and prop up their program activities to a stable level. However, they make no move to upgrade their fundraising abilities to replace their revenues.
- Nonprofit 3’s board says that moments like this are the reason you have reserves. They do what it takes to replace their program expenses and invest in ways to increase their unrestricted giving to replace the missing funds.
Charity Navigator ranks these organizations 1, then 2, then 3. As a donor, three is the only one I’d want to give to — the only one that cares enough about their programs to sustain them for the short term and work to salvage them for the long term.
At the point where you are advising people to give to nonprofits in the exact wrong order than the one you should be, you probably need to rethink your financial metrics and do more than rearrange the deck chairs.
But that’s not the worst part. Not only does Charity Navigator advise against giving to those who need it most; it advises against giving to those who have the most impact (or at the very least, is impact agnostic). We’ll talk about that more tomorrow.