Monday, 1 September 2003

Donating to charities over the internet

John A Burton, the CEO of the World Land Trust examines some of the issues and suggests a checklist of questions that need to be answered before donating. Although this article was conceived in relation to charities concerned with environment, and in particular rainforest, the questions could apply to almost any charity.

Over the past two decades there has been a proliferation of charities raising funds for conservation, and the Internet has made it easier than ever to donate, but the controls are scant. How can the public separate the good from the incompetent, or even the downright dishonest web sites?


I first became seriously involved in wildlife conservation in the late 1960s, when there were very few relevant organisations indeed. I had been carrying out investigations into the abusive aspects of wildlife trade and publishing the results in Animals Magazine (the predecessor of BBC Wildlife). The World Wildlife Fund was new, and I became the first Wildlife Consultant to Friends of the Earth in the UK, soon after it was founded, in 1969. In 1975 I left FoE (which, as a campaigning group is not a charity) to become Secretary of a charity, the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International). While at the Fauna Preservation Society I founded the TRAFFIC International network, and was one of the founders of both Bat Conservation Iinternational and the Bat Conservation Trust, and in 1989 helped found the World Wide Land Conservation Trust (now the World Land Trust).


The World Land Trust was founded to fill a niche – there was no organisation in the UK dedicated to raising funds to acquire land for conservation all over the world. The ‘Buy an Acre’ concept, launched (in BBC Wildlife Magazine, and on BBC Radio’s World Service) to buy land in Belize was a novel idea, and caught on, and soon other organisations were springing up and copying it. This is potentially a very good thing, since the more funds raised the more land saved. And the widespread use of the internet means that it has never been easier to communicate with the fund-giving public. There were also lots of other sponsorship schemes springing up, and one of the most popular has been planting trees. By the turn of the millennium, the internet was fast becoming the most popular form of making donations for both sponsoring acres and trees. But not all these activities are as charitable as they seem.

The Issues

However, the downside is that not only do some people distrust the security of donating on line (something we as an organisation have never had any problems with), but many people are now concerned about the integrity of organisations, and asking how to decide which organisations to support, and how to make decisions. Obviously I have a vested interest in promoting the World Land Trust, but I think the questions that we have tried to address on our web site are valid when assessing any charity. And if readers of this article can think of others, I would be very pleased to hear of them, and see if we can address those as well.

Transparency: It is essential that any charity expecting to receive funds from the public is as open and transparent in its operations as possible. Unfortunately this is not always the case. So check out the following:

Legal status: First and foremost make sure of the legal status of the organisation. In the UK Not-for-Profit is not the equivalent of the US Non-Profit. Any Company can be not for profit, but it does not make it a charity, governed by the strict laws of disclosure that apply to a Registered Charity. If a limited company, that is not a charity solicits donations, there may be good reasons – campaigning and political groups for instance, as well as travel companies, may decide against charitable status as it limits their activities – but sometimes it is not so straightforward. If you think you are supporting a Charity make sure you see its Registration number. And check it out at Some charities operate for profit companies in parallel with the charity. But this should be obvious from the annual returns on the Charity Commission website. To complicate things further, an organisation does not have to be registered as a Charity to claim to be a charity -- so make absolutely sure they are registered. If they are not registered ask why not.

Communications: Not only should a web site disclose an email address, it should also give details of the physical location of its office, and give telephone numbers so that you can speak to someone during normal office hours. If it does not, the organisation it may be tiny – it is easy to create a flamboyant web site from an attic. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is increasingly difficult (if not impossible) for micro organisations to comply with all the legislation surrounding a charity, and remain cost effective. This is particularly so if they are using data bases and the internet.

People: A good web site should give some information about the people behind an organisation. The names of Key Staff, all Trustees and Honorary Officers (such as Treasurer) should be disclosed. Does the organisation employ competent experienced staff? Does it make effective use of volunteers? Does it have Auditors and Legal Advisors?

It is always a good thing if an organisation has high profile personnel associated with them as Trustees or Patrons – particularly people respected within the conservation field, or with a high public profile. If you have serious concerns about activities write to them – if they take their job seriously they should reply.

Finances: A web site should disclose some information about the finances of the organisation. Registered Charities have to submit accounts, and if you cannot find out anything about the finances on a web site, then simply visit the Charity Commission website, and check there -- it's easy to do so Charities are also obliged to supply copies of their Annual Report and Accounts to enquirers (for which they are allowed make a charge – usually between £5.00 and £10.00 to cover admin costs). If you are considering a large donation it is not unreasonable to ask for a copy.

Size: While small can be beautiful in the environment, being too small often means being inefficient, with overhead costs high in relation to charitable activities. If a charity does not have facilities for online credit card donations, or telephone donations, it is likely to be operating on a shoestring. This may not be a bad thing, but if it is operating internationally, it really does need certain facilities.

Other issues: I personally find it strange that some charities offer valuable inducements to support them – free gifts – some of which are not actually free, but come out of the donations or other costs of the charity. There’s nothing illegal in this but it always seems a bit odd. It's fine if the gifts really are free (Green & Black recently donated sample bars of Maya Gold Chocolate for us to send out to new supporters for instance).

Another aspect is value for money. Is it realistic to achieve what is claimed? Can land really be bought for £25 an acre? In some countries it is cheaper, others more expensive.

How much does it really cost to plant a tree? How are the running costs of a reserve calculated? Where are trees being planted? If in the UK, is there any mention of the substantial government grants being made for tree planting?

If you are sponsoring an animal is it really benefiting the species?

Finally there are businesses operating in a way that makes them appear like charities, so before making an online donation to what appears to be a good cause think carefully. You may not want your donation ending up in a director’s or shareholder’s pocket. Make sure you are donating to a registered charity.

In my experience all good charities are more than happy to respond to close questioning – it’s in their interests to ensure there are no bad apples in the barrel. If you cannot speak to someone, or they are evasive, ask another similar charity about them. And if you are thinking of making a large donation or legacy, get your solicitor to check the charity.

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