Neutrality Paradox: 2020 – A crossroads for the nonprofit sector?


Michael Thatcher


If there was ever a thought that the first year of a new decade would follow a certain modus operandi, within three months, we would be faced with a reality check. 2020 has become a year of rarities, extremes and, often, picking sides. 

Any hint of neutrality across any topic this year produces visceral responses. The expectation is: You pick a side. But at what expense? Corporations, higher education, the media—you name it, find themselves this year being faced with the issue of neutrality. In many cases, public outcry has demanded that neutrality is unacceptable when the nation and the world is in crisis. Nonprofits have not escaped this. We at Charity Navigator, therefore find ourselves at a crossroads. There are shifts that we simply cannot ignore. Which brings us to this: How do we have conversations about the reality of the world that challenge neutrality? GlobalGiving is calling this conversation the Neutrality Paradox.

As the largest evaluator of nonprofits in the U.S., our constituents (e.g. donors, other nonprofits, and users of our website) look to us for information that will empower them to make more informed decisions about their philanthropic giving. Our organisation’s nonprofit ratings are based on financial and accountability and transparency information filed with the Internal Revenue Service, as well as other publicly-available organisational data that would be beneficial to any potential donor. We pride ourselves on presenting ratings that are unbiased, free of conflicts of interest, and here’s that word again—neutral. Our focus is purely on an organisation’s financial health and their accountability and transparency. The only exception to this would be when an organisation acts, or appears to be acting, outside of the law, based on public reporting from a credible source (e.g. State Attorney General’s Office). In these cases, depending on the severity of the claim, we issue a low, medium, or high advisory to alert our users of the information, to help further inform their decision making process. We do not seek to interpret or cast judgement ourselves; rather, just report for awareness. We know our mission, vision, and values. The organisations we evaluate have their own mission, vision, and values. But, we are not focused on these during our evaluations. Herein lies an important question: Should we be?

Since our launch in 2001, the ‘ratings provider’ identification by many donors and users of our site has remained, but, over time, our services to our constituents have evolved. In addition to ratings, one feature on our site that has become increasingly important is our Hot Topic webpages. This feature is important, but it has tested our stance on neutrality.

Hot Topics are centered around either calendared events—such as holidays and nationally- or internationally-recognised days—or crises that range from natural disasters to those that are human in origin. The release of these topics are often led by public demand. In doing so, there are issues that will be presented that may be objectionable to some of our donors and website users. Examples of these have included Hot Topics related to HIV/AIDS and the LGBTQ+ community, women’s issues, and most recently, civil rights, racial justice, and equity. We ask ourselves this question: Do we not include these on our sites because some of our supporters may personally object to the subject matter?

Our stance has been consistent thus far. Provided that the topic is not in direct conflict with our organisation’s values and operating principles, we will produce the topic, and include in the topic highly-rated organisations for donor consideration. Again, these organisations are not included based on their missions, their visions, or their values. Their inclusion is based solely on their strong Charity Navigator rating and their specific engagement in the topic of focus (e.g. responding to COVID-19).

Through all this, we are left in an uneasy situation. There are a myriad of crises that happen every day both locally and abroad. We are not a news creator, but a news sharer, and our intent is to educate. A related intent is to facilitate financial support for organisations. We cannot possibly launch a Hot Topic for every crisis, so this leaves us picking and choosing, primarily based on user demand.

In July of this year, we launched a new rating system to live alongside our long-established Star Rating System, called Encompass. With Encompass, we are treading into new territory, providing donors with significantly more information and ratings on smaller, more recently established, but no less deserving nonprofits. This new information will, eventually, be factored into a nonprofit’s overall rating. When fully launched, one of the areas we will be focusing on will be Culture & Community, which will take into account an organisation’s relationship with its employees, its connectedness and engagement with the constituents and communities they serve, their reputation, as well as their response to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Will this or should this sway our stance on neutrality, especially when things such as reputation are factored in and we are faced with decisions about who we partner with for the Charity Navigator blog, or promote, for example, on our social media channels?

Until our Encompass Rating System is fully launched over the next 18 months, our organisation will be working through many of these questions. Frameworks like GlobalGiving’s Ethos, which we were fortunate to be able to participate in and contribute to its creation, will be incredibly useful models for us to use in both guiding and testing our thinking and decision making as we proceed. Although we are proud of our neutrality, we see ourselves at a crossroads: Do we have a moral obligation to take a stand, like we did this year on civil rights and supporting the Black community after the death of George Floyd, or do we ignore what may be life-changing, pivotal shifts in our nation and the world with no stance?

Michael Thatcher is President and CEO of Charity Navigator

Tagged in: neutrality paradox

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