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Confidence in U.S. Charitable Organizations Remains Unimproved

(September 27, 2004) American confidence in charitable organizations continues to remain 10 to 15 percent lower today than it was the summer of 2001, according to a recent survey.

These finding come from a random telephone survey of 1,417 Americans interviewed by Princeton Survey Research. While the survey was only conducted over the first three weeks of August, the findings are disheartening, says Paul C. Light, professor at New York University.

Although the number of Americans who express little or no confidence in charitable organizations increased significantly between July 2001 and May 2002, the survey found the number remains almost unchanged to this day.

In fact, as Light argues in his book Sustaining Nonprofit Performance: The Case for Capacity Building and the Evidence to Support It, the nonprofit sector is still feeling the effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and unlike the government and other civic institutions, charitable organizations received none of the post Sept. 11 rally in confidence. Instead, only 15 percent of surveyed Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in nonprofit organizations, placing the sector just barely ahead of organized labor, television news, big business, HMO's and Congress, and well behind the military, the U.S. Supreme Court and the church.

The problem, Light argues, isn't whether nonprofits have the right priorities, but instead whether they have the right organizations and fiduciary systems. When asked to identify the greater problem facing charitable organizations, only 17 percent of respondents said the organizations had the wrong priorities, versus 70 percent who replied they were just inefficient.

The main problem---spending money wisely. Only 11 percent of Americans believe that charitable organizations do a very good job in this area, the survey found. Twenty-five percent of respondents question how well organizations spend money, while 12 percent did not respond to the question.

As expected, these ratings are lowest among Americans with the least confidence (6 percent). Even Americans who expressed a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in charitable organizations still have doubts about how well nonprofits perform spending money (41 percent) compared to just 38 percent with the same amount of confidence believing organizations budget their money wisely.

Other key areas of doubt include:

  • 19 percent of respondents feel organizations do a very good job of running their programs and services
  • 17 percent of respondents feel they do a very good job being fair in their decisions
  • 31 percent of feel organizations do a very good job hiring people.

Unfortunately, Light believes that confidence will not improve without demonstrable action to improve actual performance. 'The decline was not only real,' he argues, 'but appears to be durable.' The survey also shows, he believes, that donors and volunteers are increasingly strategic in their giving decisions and are looking for impact and accountability.

The solution, Light believes, will not come from telling more success stories, complaining about negative media coverage, or worrying about legislative change. Instead, organizations need to improve their core performance and police its poor performers.

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