Do you know where your money is going? 45 West Michigan charities ranked

Here's why Acton Institute is the #1 charity in West Michigan, and how we helped Keys for Kids, the lowest charity on the list, to improve.

Ranking West Michigan Charities by performance

RANKING LOCAL CHARITIES

We know many of you here on Thanksgiving week are thinking about what charities you would like to donate money to over the holiday season.  

If you want to give to a locally-based organization, we've taken the top 45 non-profit organizations with a 501(c)(3) tax status in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon Counties and ranked them by ratings provided by charitynavigator.org, the leading web site for evaluating the performance of non-profits across the country. 

Here are the rankings including additional information you can sort through based on several different metrics.

METHODOLOGY

According to Charity Navigator, there are currently 1.57 million nonprofits registered in the United States.  Charity Navigator only gives a rating to charities if they have a 501(c)(3) tax status and file a Form 990. The charity must have generated at least $1 million in revenue for two consecutive years and must have been in existence for at least seven years. The charity must have at least $500,000 in public support.  Public support must account for at least 40% of total revenue for at least two consecutive years. The web site does not rate hospitals and their foundations and schools and their foundations because only charities that largely depend on donations from the public are rated.

Charity Navigator's 5 steps to Informed Giving

Charity Navigator's video on how to donate

For any kind of charity, executing the mission of the organization is always most important. The best guide to how a charity is performing is by how it's spending money.

WEST MICHIGAN'S CHARITIES

In our review, we found some of the largest charities in West Michigan are doing an excellent job using money for the purpose each 501(c)(3) was created.  More than 60 percent we surveyed spent 80 percent or more of total expenses on the programs and services it delivers. Almost half of the charities keep their administrative expenses at less than 10 percent.  Three out of every four charities we surveyed in West Michigan keep their fundraising expenses at less than 10 percent of what's spent. 

"It's a great sign that more and more charities are committing to their own financial health and accountability and transparency, as a way to communicate further with their constituents and donors," Sara Nason from charitynavigator.org wrote in an e-mail to us. 

There are certainly differences in performance from those at the top of the list and those at the bottom.  

#1 ON THE LIST

At the top of our rankings is the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty based in Grand Rapids. It was established in 1990 and is a think-tank organization "to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles".

Acton attracts some of the most popular speakers in the country and regularly holds events hosting people from around the world.  Acton University hosted more than 1,000 people from 80 countries in 2017 to help educate people. 

"We want to be the best run non-profit in the world," Acton Institute Executive Director Kris Mauren said.  "We believe in our mission and we want people to know we use every dollar they give us in the most efficient and effective manner in the execution of that mission."

Acton attained a perfect 100 rating in Charity Navigator's ratings which measure transparency and performance. There are only 58 organizations across the country with perfect scores (100) out of the 9,029 that have been evaluated by the web site. 

One of the benchmarks for charities is the percentage of their expenses that go to the intended programs to fulfill a charity's mission.  In Acton's case, nearly 86 percent of the organization's expenditures are programming expenses and services to the cause.  

"When we made that decision several years ago (to meet all standards), we went all the way," Mauren said.  "That's who we are going to be organizationally and we want the outside to see us as strong and effective and fully transparent because we've got nothing to hide."

Mauren says he uses the "scratch test" when he evaluates all charities and takes a very close look at the organization's financials and it's transparency in filing reports.  He says a lower score on some metrics for those down the list doesn't mean they're not "fine organizations effecting a good mission".

THE RANKINGS

Just behind Acton Institute in second place is Partners Worldwide, an organization helping to end poverty using the business community to create better economies in all parts of the world.  

John Ball Zoo is ranked third with the Grand Rapids Art Museum and Kent County's Habitat for Humanity rounding out the top 5. 

In the middle of the pack, performing well, were all of the Grand Rapids area social service organizations helping the homeless.  Guiding Light Mission, Degage Ministries, and Mel Trotter Ministries were all within six spots of each other.

One of the bigger surprises on the list was the listing for the Van Andel Institute.  It's rated by Charity Navigator 42nd out of 45 charities in Grand Rapids, mostly for not making information easily accessible on the charity's website. 

"Charity Navigator’s review overgeneralizes VAI’s operations and structure," Van Andel Institute Beth Hinshaw Hall wrote in a prepared statement. "Based on our continued relationships with scientific research granting agencies and our generous supporters, we are confident that our development practices are consistent with the most trusted organizations in the scientific research industry."

Hinshaw Hall also said the VAI is looking to redevelop it's web site to be more donor-friendly.

"As part of the web site project, we are looking at ways to share relevant information with donors and prospective donors, including the posting of our donor privacy policy," Hinshaw Hall wrote in a prepared statement.

IMPROVEMENT

At the bottom of our rankings is a charity well-known to many people in the Grand Rapids area because it's been in existence since the 1940's.   

Keys for Kids, formerly known as Children's Bible Hour and CBH Ministries, is run by Executive Director Greg Yoder these days. The organization is popular for it's radio programs, particularly when they were narrated in the past by local talent, "Uncle" Charlie Vander Meer. 

In addition to using radio programs these days, Yoder's organization provides Bible scriptures and lessons to kids using cell phones and stuffed animals with electronic "storyteller" players.

"It's really amazing how God has kind of morphed us from this Christian variety show for kids to now really touching kids on their cell phones because they can access them every day from their phones," Yoder said.

To his credit, Yoder didn't shy away from our questions regarding the charity's poor Charity Navigator rating. 

"We have some things to work on but what organization doesn't?," Yoder said.

He told us how much of a difference his organization is making in the lives of kids around the world.

"We're able to reach three million kids and their families," Yoder said.  "What better way to not only teach moral values but to be able teach something they're going to hide in their heart forever and use it forever."

One of the main reasons Keys for Kids has a low rating is because it is reporting only 66 percent of its money is going to the program, something Yoder says he's continuing to work on to ensure donor money goes directly to a service. He says the organization didn't put much emphasis on Charity Navigator, choosing to look towards accreditation by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) first. The charity is meeting all of the ECFA's standards.

"I don't like that number (66% going to programs) but it's the number we have," Yoder said.  "Do we want it to get better? Absolutely. Would we love 100 percent of the donations going to 100 percent to our programs? Absolutely. Is that reality? Probably not for a small ministry like ours."

But we found other ways Keys for Kids can improve it's rating.  Charity Navigator took off points for a lack of transparency on the organization's web site.  Yoder promised us he would address the issues we brought to him to attempt to get the charity's rating to improve.  

"If you really want to trust Keys for Kids or any other organization for that matter, going to a web site (Charity Navigator) is not enough," Yoder said.  "You really need to meet those people who are involved."

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