UPDATE -- 4:43 p.m., Oct. 11, 2014: This article has been updated to include a statement from Action Aid USA.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak has officially killed more than 4,000 people and spread to seven countries, capturing the world's attention like no health emergency in recent memory. The fight to end the outbreak is expected to cost nearly $1 billion, but U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson told the U.N. General Assembly Friday that only one-quarter of that amount has been raised.
The international community is waking up to the fact that Ebola is not going to go away without a concerted effort and the dedication of massive amounts of resources. But many people are not sure which relief groups and charitable organizations are the best places to send their donations, as calls for aid echo around the globe.
Here's a breakdown of several organizations to avoid when making donations to the Ebola relief effort:
ActionAid: Also known as Act!onAid, this NGO is recommended by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Center for International Disaster Information (USAID CIDI) as one of 37 “trusted and experienced relief organizations.” The group’s Ebola donation website says that it “is on the ground training volunteers to spread awareness of the disease and how to stop it from spreading.”
But ActionAid, which uses the tagline “End Poverty Together” in its promotional materials, scored only 70.02 out 100 on Charity Navigator, an independent nonprofit that ranks charitable organizations based on a range of factors. ActionAid got a solid 96.00 for its accountability and transparency, but it earned a dismal 57.80 for financial score. Its disappointing overall score earned it only two out of four possible stars on Charity Navigator.
One major reason why ActionAid scored so poorly is based on the way it spends donations. Only 53.0 percent of the charity’s budget is spent on the programs and services it delivers, according to Charity Navigator, while 23.0 percent goes toward administrative expenses and 23.8 percent goes to fundraising expenses. Administrative expenses, as defined by Charity Navigator, include things like overhead, administrative staff and associated costs, while fundraising expenses are money an organization spends to raise more money.
Action Aid USA spokesman Chris Coxon said in an Oct. 11 email responding to this article that the accounting processes the charity uses resulted in its administrative costs appearing to be "particularly high" in the fiscal year ending 2012, the timeframe Charity Navigator relied on when calculating its current Charity Navigator score.
"Because we do accrual rather than cash accounting, the numbers differ greatly from year to year, as we book any multi-year pledges into the year in which they were made, even though we don’t receive all of the money within that particular year," Coxon wrote. "In years that we receive multi-year pledges, it appears that we are bringing in a lot of money and the admin costs are low. But in years that we are running activities using funds from multi-year grants booked in previous calendar years, it appears that our admin costs are particularly high – this is the case for 2012 when the Charity Navigator rating was issued."
Global Communities: This charity also comes recommended by USAID CIDI, as it “is leading important interventions to prevent and control the Ebola virus,” particularly in Liberia, according to an Aug. 7 statement on its website. Charity Navigator gave it an 83.28 overall rating and a respectable three out of four stars. These numbers reflect the fact that it earned a 100.00 on accountability and transparency, and 88.6 percent of its budget is spent on program expenses while only spending 10.6 percent on administrative expenses and 0.7 percent on fundraising for the fiscal year ending September 2012.
But the charity still only notched a 76.36 score for its financials. Charity Navigator does not explain what exactly led to that rating, but it likely had to do with the fact that its president and CEO, David Weiss, was paid a whopping $442,439 as of the fiscal year ending September 2012. That only equals 0.24 percent of the Global Communities’ budget that year, but funding fat leadership paychecks is probably not the best use of money that could be better spent on personal protective equipment, food aid and other Ebola-fighting needs.
Plan International: Once again, USAID CIDI recommended this global organization as a good place to send donations to help with Ebola aid effort. And Plan, which says it “is on the ground fighting the outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone,” also snagged three out of four stars on Charity Navigator, and a 100.00 score for accountability and transparency, earning it an impressive 89.34 overall rating. Even the company’s 84.93 financial score is pretty great on its face.
But when you dig into the organization’s financials, the company spends just 76.0 percent of its budget on program expenses, while 12.5 percent goes to administrative costs and 11.3 percent is spent on fundraising. The group’s president and CEO also took home 0.33 percent of its budget at $254,226 in the fiscal year ending June 2013.
Plan’s are not the worst numbers, but they are also not ones that should lead donors to send their money to Plan over organizations like, for instance, Doctors Without Borders, USA, which spends 86.8 percent of its budget on program expenses and just 1.3 percent on administrative expenses and 11.8 percent on fundraising, while its executive director, Sophie Delaunay makes $142,015, or .06 percent of its budget.
Stop Hunger Now: This well-known international hunger relief agency has been operating since 1998, and has “shipped over two million meals to various partners in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other West African countries,” according to a blog run by its founder and president, Ray Buchanan. But once again, the company pays its leaders large sums, a fact that likely contributed to it only being given three out of four stars on Charity Navigator despite having a 100.00 accountability and transparency rating for the fiscal year ending December 2012.
The company earned an overall score of 86.54, and a financial score of just 80.97, though it spent 89.9 percent of its budget on program expenses and 2.3 percent on fundraising. The issue Charity Navigator likely saw with the charity comes in the administrative expenses category, which sucked up 7.8 percent of its budget. Stop Hunger Now’s CEO, Rodney W. Brooks took home $115,559, or 0.74 percent of the organization’s budget; its founder and “international president,” Rev. Ray A. Buchanan, however, pocketed $121,895, or 0.78 percent of the budget.
Combine those two salaries and you’ve got 1.52 percent of the group’s budget going into two men’s bank accounts -- probably not the best way to fund the fight against the Ebola epidemic.
Online scams: While not technically a charitable group, the prevalence of online scams related to Ebola relief necessitated their inclusion on this list as a general type. Authorities including the Illinois Attorney General’s office have urged people to be wary of email scams asking for donations or selling products or services related to Ebola relief.
“We suspect these emails are the handiwork of scammers seeking to take advantage of people’s understandable fear and anxiety surrounding this international public health risk,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement included in an NBC Chicago report.
Madigan also warned about donating to any charity that has not been approved by charity ranking and vetting services or websites, recommending that people take steps like asking questions about the charity, refusing to pay in cash, requesting information in writing, watching out for “look-alike” website and more in order to avoid being duped, according to NBC Chicago. “Con artists may seek to exploit the crisis for their [own] personal profit,” she said.