12 Red Flags To Look For Before You Donate

It’s not easy to decide which charities are worthy of our donations. Successful non-profits pay marketing teams that specialize in figuring out how to get YOU to give, and they’re good at it. Add in social media, making each of us easier to reach, and our decisions about which causes are worthy become even more difficult. 

“To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.” 

~Maya Angelou

It’s hard to turn away from a photo of a hungry child and a caption that claims a simple donation equivalent to your morning coffee could save her. Yet we all know that some claims are just too good to be true. When considering a charity, it’s normal to allow a bit of embellishment for a good cause – but is it wise?

Do you offer the same grace when deciding where to spend, rather than give, your money? Would you continue to buy a product that caused more harm than good? Or to buy clothes from a store whose ownership wasn’t concerned about their customers or employees? What about repeatedly spending your money on services that claim to make your life easier, only to have no impact at all? 

As we are immersed in the work of improving lives around the world, we interact with many other organizations. The people we meet often ask us to give our opinion on charities that have caught their attention.

Websites like Charity Watch can evaluate large charities on the percentage of donations that are being used for programming vs overhead, which should definitely play a part in your decisions. However, some red flags might be harder to catch. 

We know these issues are important to you, but they’re even more important to the outcomes of recipients of charity around the world. That’s why we’ve created this list of 12 Red Flags To Look For Before You Donate.  

The following are warning signs that indicate an organization isn’t successfully moving its clients toward long term liberation from charity. This list is targeted to business as charity models, not those performing front line services for survivors. There are excellent organizations, in the United States and abroad, doing the rescue work that is desperately needed immediately after tragedies. Viable’s role comes next: liberating those who have already survived from the circumstances that make them more likely to be victimized again.

Watch out for these 12 red flags as you decide where to give your money this year. You can use these tools when reviewing charities’ mission statements and impact reports to identify efforts that are failing to provide lasting change. 

  • The Mission Statement Is As Clear As Mud. Unclear or murky language is often used to blur accountability for tangible results. Words like empower, sustainable, and impact  can be used as concealer in the absence of true results.  

  • Certificates And Plaques Won’t Pay The Bills. Watch for a focus on training activities, number of graduates, or businesses “launched.”  A “graduate” of a curriculum can easily reach the end of a program with a certificate, but without a job, career connections, or a paycheck.

  • The Merry-Go-Round Giving Cycle. Repeated annual requests that seek to fund the same “business” programs, for the same people, for the same objectives, year after year are not, by their very process, making a lasting difference in the lives of beneficiaries. Look for new people being served and the newly independent successes of those no longer needing services. 

  • Leadership Exists In A Vacuum.  If no one from the local business community is at the table, local issues are not truly being addressed. Local business leaders should be invited, included, and consulted in discussions of what may or may not be economically viable for local beneficiaries.

  • Reinforcement Of The Victim Mentality.  The focus on giving to victims is reinforced by leaders of the non-profit and the language on the website, mission statement, or impact report. The goal of a social impact charity must include a mindset shift from victim / beneficiary / recipient to producer / owner / benefactor. 

  • Suffering From Island Syndrome.  Rather than a sponsoring ministry controlling every aspect of a business-for-good (i.e. the charity is the investor, lender, supplier, buyer, and employer), local producers and buyers have to be brought in to achieve long term understanding and change. Engaging and employing local leaders enables success to continue even when the sponsoring ministry moves on. 

  • The Blind Are Leading The Blind.  Quite often, the requirements for charity leadership are ministry qualifications rather than business qualifications. Without the expertise that would be expected in a for-profit venture, leaders are tasked with creating businesses and training entrepreneurs. Look for leadership with solid credentials, as well as experience in the target region.   

  • They’re Flying Too High, Too Fast. Trendy programs and methodologies shouldn’t take precedence over ensuring that business is understood at the basic level. Providing instruction on iterations, pivots, scaling, efficiency, and process improvements is not effective in settings where fundamentals have not yet been mastered.

  • Building A Road To Nowhere. Is the organization providing advice and training that aren’t useful in the local economy? Can the skills being taught be easily put to use in existing local markets? 

  • You Can’t Get There From Here.  A chasm often exists between the objectives and mindsets of local businesses, the ministry leaders, and the beneficiaries. To ensure actual impact, nonprofits must first focus on aligning with the local community on issues of trust, expectations of risk, and the definition of success. The achievement of success cannot be defined by only one party. 

  • There’s No Skin In The Game.  The business or charity is run solely by outsiders who will not benefit from the healthy squeeze naturally generated when growing a for-profit business. Those in power must feel the risk of failure to be effective leaders. 

  • It’s A One Trick Pony.  One service is offered, rather than mentorship through a process of improvement. If the service provided is simply training, but there is no follow through on how or where to use it, it will have no impact.

If you have a question about how charity can create lasting change, we would love to hear from you. 

And if you believe, like we do, that poverty can be alleviated through legitimate business opportunities, please continue to support our work.

It’s not easy to decide which charities are worthy of our donations. Here are 12 Red Flags to look out for.



Reese Parrott: Director of Career Development

Reese is a seasoned professional in career development, with experience spanning entry-level to C-level roles across a wide variety of industries. She passionately advocates that employees are a company’s greatest asset and champions positive culture change by prioritizing the hiring of individuals who bring more than what’s listed in job descriptions. Reese excels in creating efficient processes, driving performance improvements, and establishing corporate talent acquisition divisions from the ground up. Her life’s work centers around helping others. She found her true calling at Viable Inc, where she guides trauma survivors to discover meaningful work and independence. Reese’s journey is one of empowerment, transformation, and a relentless commitment to the growth of individuals and organizations alike.