The home page has a great deal of information. Since the information is well organized, it is not visually confusing or overwhelming, although it could be simplified more. The page is divided into three sections; the largest of which is the central part of the page. Quick-links are segregated to the left and right sides, and the main content spans the middle. There is so much information it extends far below the fold (area seen by user without having to scroll). Most of this information actually consists of articles. Since the majority of visitors are using the site as a comparison tool, it is probably not detrimental to the site that the articles appear below the fold.
The primary navigation uses dhtml, or dynamic html, to allow for the secondary navigation to be displayed upon rollover. DHTML can allow a frequent site user to quickly jump to sections of the site used more often than others. At the same time, if one just clicks on the primary navigation header, for example, About Us, the secondary navigation appears across the top of the content area. This is intelligently designed because not all users have browsers that display dhtml correctly. Most users of this site will be people generally between the ages of 25 to 65, likely accessing the site from their home computers. Older or home users are not known to update their home computer software as readily or as often as younger users or those whose computer equipment is located in an office.
On the left-hand side of the page, where secondary navigation traditionally resides, the site allows a user to quickly find charities by keyword, category or geographic location. This feature is a great way for an experienced user to maximize his time on the site. For the frequent user there is the option to create an account.
For this review, specific charities including the ACLU, Sierra Club, and Heifer International were researched. (Disclosure: The author is a volunteer at Heifer.) Upon entering a keyword, a list of results is displayed. The information is displayed very similarly to a financial website. In fact, the data has the same look and feel as looking at financial statistics. Since the average user may not be financially savvy, this part of the site is rather daunting.
Most prominently a user is shown the charities' rating, ranging from zero to four stars. Below the visual rating are sections entitled Organizational Efficiency, Peer Analysis, Income Statement, and a brief Mission synopsis. On the right are graphs that aren't very informative or helpful, but rather vague with comparisons that have very little context.
Each section, such as Organizational Efficiency, is also broken into smaller sub categories. These categories allow a user to click on the item and a pop-up window opens with a brief explanation of what this category and sub-category means. The explanations lack clarity and may only be useful to someone who works for a non-profit (as opposed to someone giving to a non-profit.
Unfortunately, to truly understand the information being presented, it is necessary to read the Methodology or FAQ sections. The average person may not have the time to review the site this deeply, and will therefore perhaps overlook or eliminate charities that may in fact be worthy, or better than they appear from the ratings.
One of the example organizations, Heifer International, received only two stars. It spends .19 cents for every dollar raised, roughly 20 percent of its expenses are spent for fundraising, 71 percent is spent on the program expenses, and eight percent on administrative expenses. Comparatively, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) spends .06 cents for every dollar raised, roughly ten percent of its expenses are spent for fundraising, 74 percent is spent on the program expenses, and 15 percent is spent on administration. These numbers may not appear so dissimilar, but the ACLU gets four stars out of four. In reading through the methodology section the site stresses a user should not compare organizations from different categories, e.g., development versus advocacy. However, the methodology presents a confusing presentation of numbers.
Pat Stanley, the northeast community relations coordinator at Heifer International, reveals an underlying factor not addressed by the site. "The charities listed with Heifer are not development organizations. Heifer receives the majority of our funding from individual donors. The organizations Charity Navigator has us listed with receive the majority of their revenue from gifts in kind and government grants." Nowhere on the site does Charity Navigator list where an organization procures fundraising monies. Considering that Heifer International raises money differently might account for the discrepancy in figures.
World Emergency Relief gets four stars and is listed as a peer to Heifer International. For every dollar raised, World Emergency Relief spends .02 cents. How is this possible? In the Mission blurb, the non-profit states, "We then seek those supplies from corporate donors and other charities." In other words, this organization does not raise funds to buy supplies; it relies on donations. Its fundraising expenses are therefore a mere 1.7 percent and 97 percent of its resources go to program expenses. World Emergency Relief is an organization that as its name implies helps during times of immediate crisis. Heifer on the other hand stays in communities teaching communities how to sustain themselves. The missions of both organizations are similar and yet at polar extremes. As someone researching where to donate money, the lack of "apples to apples" comparison information here is misleading.
Overall, on the surface, if you understand the nuances of the non-profit world, Charity Navigator is a decent source. Since the site states its raison d'etre is "…to guide intelligent giving," it should present a user with a better understanding of each charity.
Unfortunately in trying to be "unbiased" it relies too much on hard numbers. Perhaps a critique of whether each organization's mission statement is fulfilled would be equally helpful. The point shouldn't be whether a charity performs like a Fortune 500 business, but rather does it do what it sets out to do, effectively using the funds donated?