How to evaluate a disability charity

People often ask me for advice about disability charities, wanting to know how best to use their donations and worried that organisations advocating on disability issues don’t necessarily do it in ways that the disability community wants or needs. It’s a legitimate concern — as with all charities, there are a number of bad actors in the industry, and when it comes to disability, complex social attitudes really come into play. Since I get a lot of questions about which disability charities I endorse, I’m putting together a servicey post on how to evaluate disability charities — but I leave ultimate decisions about how and where to donate up to you.

1. What do you want your donations to do?

Disability charities do all kinds of things. Some provide direct services, which can include help accessing aides and meeting other needs, educational outreach, support, and more. Others may advocate and lobby — pushing for inclusion of disability in social programs, for example, or lobbying against cuts. It’s also possible that a disability charity is litigation-focused, defending civil rights for disabled people. Some may direct themselves towards research on, education about, and treatment of specific impairments.

It’s important to know exactly what you want your dollars to do, because that’s going to determine the best place to send them. If, for example, you want to improve direct services, you’d be well-served by going to a local organisation that does work on the ground to support disabled people. Conversely, if you’re concerned about civil rights, you want to go to a state or national disability rights group because they’ll use your dollars in a highly effective way — but be aware that litigation groups don’t provide individual legal aid and assistance, because they focus on the big picture. Thus, an organisation might pull together a class action lawsuit for disenfranchised voters if they think it will set a powerful precedent, but a specific individual may not benefit unless she’s eligible for inclusion, and such lawsuits can take years.

2. Develop your list of charities. 

There are lots of resources for finding charitable organisations and to be honest sometimes Google is a really great starting point. Try searching for ‘disability rights [state]’ or ‘disability legal,’ for example, if you want a litigation-based organisation. If you want to contribute to a group that does research and intervention, try listing the name of the impairment or disability that interests you and ‘charity,’ e.g. ‘autism charity’ or ‘muscular dystrophy charity.’

You should be able to locate three to five organisations that do what you’re interested in. If Google’s not helping you, cast the net wider to friends and acquaintances. Social media can be helpful, and contacting people who do disability advocacy work can also be productive. The important point is to have a compare and contrast list to work with.

3. Do your homework.

There are a number of things to look into when evaluating a disability charity, and a lot of them overlap with tips for taking a look at charities in general.

  • How do they allocate their funding? Operating budgets are a matter of public disclosure, and they should outline how much money goes to what. If a charity is spending a lot on administration or advertising, that’s a red flag. If it won’t provide copies of annual reports upon request, that’s also a red flag.
  • Who is running the charity? Are the major players at the charity disabled? While nondisabled people certainly can work at disability charities, they shouldn’t make up the majority of boards, committees, and staff, and it’s worrying if they do.
  • How long has the charity been around? An organisation that opened just last year isn’t necessarily bad, because everyone has to start somewhere, but it may also struggle in its early years, if it survives. If you’re making a big donation or bequest, you might want it to go to a charity with an established record so it doesn’t just vanish into the ether. Let a charity prove itself before you lend financial support.
  • What does the charity do, exactly? Charities should be able to provide information about their programmes and activities. Read up to learn more. Pay attention to community or regional victories — if it’s a litigation group, what kinds of cases have they brought to court, and what were the outcomes? Has a lobbyist group successfully pushed for policy changes? Are the charity’s aims disablist, as for example at eliminationist autism groups or programmes like Goodwill that promote sheltered workshops and subminimum wage?
  • Are you unsure about whether a charity is disablist? It’s okay — sometimes it’s not obvious, or sometimes you aren’t well-versed in an issue and you want to make sure you aren’t making a mistake. Try Googling the charity’s name in connection with terms like ‘controversy’ and ‘disablist’ or ‘ableist’ to see what comes up. Lots of entries outlining problems with the group should be cause for concern. This gives you a picture of what the disability community thinks about the charity.

If you get a weird or uncomfortable feeling about a charity, pay attention to it. There are lots of great groups doing important work, and you don’t need to throw money at the bad ones. You should also consider intersectional issues when taking a look at disability charities: A group might be really good at providing services, but that doesn’t mean it’s not transphobic, for example. A litigation group might focus on issues of concern to white disabled people but not address racialised issues. A research organisation might have a history of homophobia. The list goes on. Make sure your funds go to a group that represents the interests and needs of all disabled people, not just those the organisation finds acceptable.

And if you’re still left feeling like you’re not sure about where to send your money, then, sure, email me and I’ll send you a list.

Image: Disability, Abhijit Bhaduri, Flickr