Local organizations receive low ratings from charity watchdog

Since 2001, Charity Navigator has been a leading charity watchdog following the money -- reviewing the inner workings of hundreds of charities across the country to help you make smarter choices.

But the Navigator ruffled a few feathers with this year's Holiday Giving Guide - naming the highest and lowest-rated charities it evaluated.

Among the lowest-rated? Two charities in Washington state. Stronger Families, a marriage and family advocate group, got low marks for what Charity Navigator considers a lack of transparency in the way the charity is run.

And Operation Lookout, which is dedicated to finding missing, abducted and runaway children, got low ratings for spending most of its money -- more than 85 percent -- on fundraising.

Charity Navigator says in following the bucks. Nine out of 10 of the charities it evaluated spent at least 65 cents on the actual charity program or service, and 7 out of 10 did even better, spending at least 75 cents of every dollar on programs.

As far as charity navigator is concerned, any charity that takes your whole dollar but only gives less than 33 and a third cents to the actual charity, is not spending your money wisely.

But Operation Lookout told KOMO 4 News that Charity Navigator's rating are misleading because that organization has chosen to contract fundraisers that also take care of part of the program services.

Operation Lookout co-founder Melody Gibson addressed the issue in an email, when asked for a response to the Charity Navigator rating.

"Operation Lookout has chosen to contract fundraisers that will include an element of programmatic services for a cost effective method of national one-to-one outreach. The results are favorable to the mission however the reporting processes are not clear enough to demonstrate this value to OPERATION LOOKOUT, thus it 'appears' the fundraiser is 'pocketing' funds when much of the payment is paid for an element of our program," the email reads.

Stronger Families Executive Director Noel Meador says its low rating was caused by mistakes on the annual charity reporting form required by the IRS, called form 990. Meador had this email reply:

"The low rating is only due to a clerical error in the filing of the 990 under several policy items that were incorrectly marked. In fact those policies do exist within Stronger Families. An amended 990 has been sent to Battershell and Nichols CPA firm and will be resubmitted to Charity Navigator. It is worth noting that the percentage of program vs. administrative cost to Stronger Families is very good. The program expenses is 74.7% compared to only 5.6% administrative expenses."

Charity Navigator told KOMO 4 News it's evaluations and ratings are based on the form 990 information filed and reviewed by the charities themselves. and the bottom line for donors is to review all the information and when in doubt, ask questions.

Spokeswoman Sandra Miniutti says in signing form 990 and filing the report with the IRS every fiscal year, charities officers are acknowledging that the information contained in the report is accurate and has been reviewed.

Charity Navigator says it routinely updates it's ratings, and any corrections submitted by charities will be evaluated as soon as the updated 990 information is forwarded from the Internal Revenue Service.

The charity watchdog says the bottom line for donors- is to review all the information about a charity you can, and when in doubt - ask questions.