My worst nightmare is now true: sloppy ratings of nonprofit effectiveness in Haiti

Evening update. I just discovered the press release sent out by Guidestar and GreatNonprofits touting their reviews. How do you spell “No Shame?” Seems it may be time to follow the money to see who benefits.


UPDATE from this afternoon: As a result of Tweeting, Guidestar has now changed the title of the list discussed in this blog to more accurately reflect what it is: “Most Reviewed Relief Organizations in Haiti.” If a handful of reviews qualify as “most.”


Original Post:

I was doing a bit of research today that required me to look up a few organizations in GuideStar.

Imagine my surprise to find on Guidestar’s home page the following list:

“Top Ten Relief Organizations Working In Haiti”

Wow! That’s quite a claim. What was  their criteria for picking these 10 out of all the other NGOs they listed as doing work in Haiti?

Guidestar goes on to say under that amazing headline: “Donors, clients, and volunteers have identified these nonprofits as the most effective working in Haiti.” Hmm.

So I clicked the button “learn more or write reviews.”

When I clicked through, this took me to “Disaster Action Center” which seems to be a collaborative effort of Guidestar and GreatNonprofits.

You may not have heard of GreatNonprofits yet. I hadn’t until they were named in a holiday giving press release put out by a consortium of third party intermediaries that have been setting themselves up as the “go to” rating places if you want the skinny on nonprofit effectiveness. (You can see my rants on this in prior blog posts like “Join a lively debate on rating nonprofit societal outcomes” or others under the effectiveness tab.)

GreatNonprofits invites donors, clients and volunteers to do little reviews of the nonprofits they support or have benefited from. Anyone can go online and write a review and choose the number of stars they’d like to give to that nonprofit. Kind of like the ratings on Amazon.

So I clicked through to read the reviews of some of the organizations that were listed by Guidestar in the Top 10 and some that weren’t in the Top 10 but also seemed to have 5 Stars, the top rating.

I admit it. I didn’t click on every nonprofit. But the ones that I did, that were listed in the Top 10, had ONLY 1 or 2 Reviews. That’s it.

But some of the NGOs that didn’t make the Top 10 list also had the same number of stars and same number of reviews. For example, World Vision International had five stars and two donor reviews (as of 3:55 pm EST today) and they were in the Top Ten list. PLAN USA had five stars and two donor reviews and they were not listed as being in the top 10 list.

And some of the donor reviews had nothing to do with Haiti. Assuming they really are donors, right? I mean, who’s to say that the reviews aren’t the work of a PR firm hired to write the reviews. Or fund development staff?

When I suggested on Twitter (you can find the conversation by searching @gaylegifford) that it was absolutely shameful for Guidestar and GreatNonprofits to be naming a top ten list based on 1 or 2 donor reviews, GreatNonprofits replied:

@gaylegifford its a new site-we need more reviews 2 build the resource. U can help by spreading the word 2 post at

It’s pretty obvious to all that they need more reviews to even begin to have a credible claim. That is, if you buy the whole idea that rating NGO effectiveness is the same as reviewing a book or toaster, which I don’t. It’s not that I don’t think that feedback from donors et al isn’t helpful. Caveat emptor on that.

But  to then take those skimpy reviews and definitively name a top ten list of effectiveness based on the handful of reviews and the handful of organizations reviewed, I’m still shaking my head.

By the way, shouldn’t there be some distinction made between what donors say and what clients or  volunteers have to say?

But what irresponsible  hubris to make a claim about NGO effectiveness in a disaster of this magnitude based on what I might describe as a complete lack of credible information.

I’m not saying that some of the organizations on the list don’t deserve their rating . But I am saying that GreatNonprofits and Guidestar have absolutely no credibility  if this is the criteria they are using to be telling donors or the media that their  uninformed list is in the Top 10 in Relief.


P.S. By the way, just because an NGO has done good work in Haiti in the past (e.g. a school) doesn’t mean it has the competency  to do the type of relief work that is needed in a disaster of this magnitude.  Or the capacity to handle huge amounts of short term aid.

What would be helpful is for those organizations that have been working on the ground for some time in Haiti to communicate with each other and with the world community how donations can best be used … for relief or for long term rebuilding.

13 responses to My worst nightmare is now true: sloppy ratings of nonprofit effectiveness in Haiti

  1. Gayle Gifford Post Author

    Heather, There are many of us out there … a rising tide… adding our voices for sanity here.

    I’ll keep speaking out. You too.

  2. Pamela Grow

    Thanks for this post Gayle. My market has always been the tiny nonprofit – those with the budgets of $1.5 million and under (mostly under) who do AMAZING work but tend to score poorly for one reason or another on these rating sites. One organization I’m working with scores a paltry 2 stars on Charity Navigator, despite the fact that every dollar donated results in $6 in services provided!

  3. Laura Deaton

    Gayle – You and I have already talked about this, and you’re right, this is a shameful example of people trying to scramble and grab PR by creating top 10 lists that not only haven’t been vetted, but that do a great deal of disservice to donors and the entire nonprofit community. If there’s an opportunity to join you, Heather, and the many others like us who have expressed these concerns for a more concerted effort for advocacy for sanity checks on rating systems, please count on me and count me in.


  4. Laura Deaton

    I think that’s a great idea and would be happy to coordinate/host an invite-only brainstorming conference call for us, if that would be helpful. I’ll round up with you separately.

  5. Nancy Iannone

    Thank you Gayle for taking on this issue. I saw this list and wondered what the rankings were based on, but didn’t take the time to look further. There is a reason I follow every person that has commented on this post thus far – knowledge, dedication to the sector and the willingness to take a stand (among many others).

    I hope you all will keep the conversation going, not just on how to create sanity in rankings, but on how to measure the true impact organizations are making in our communities.

  6. zack

    So is there a website available that is accurate that will provide good solid guidance for non-profit or charity effectiveness? I see you have indicated the ones that do not do a good job but that is not helping me understand what I should be using.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Unfortunately, there is no easy “rating” for nonprofit effectiveness. I would not recommend any of the charity raters as I think they miss one of the whole points… few charities make progress on their own. They depend on other organizations to help support their work.

      Are there bad charities? Yes.

      I suggest that you look at the web site of charities you are thinking about. Ask for their annual reports. Do some research as to what are considered best practices in their field and then ask the charity you are interested in how they know they are making an impact.

      There is no easy answer.

  7. Pamela Grow

    Revisiting this as I feel it’s an important topic.

    I think it’s really important for individual charities to communicate well with their donors — and to talk about these sites. My clients, and the size of organization that I work with, are often too small to even be on the radar of charity rating sites. But when they ARE, it’s important to address the issue head on (I’ve got a good post on this:

    Ya just compare apples to grapefruits, which is what most charity rating sites do.

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