Donors Check Watchdogs, So They Think

Donors might not be intimately familiar with individual charity watchdogs but as many as 36 million donors use the organizations at least sometimes before making a donation, according to a recent survey. The study also shows they really might not know the difference.

Authors of “Charity Watchdogs: Ignore them at your own risk,” a 10-page report from Grey Matter Research and Harmon Research, surveyed more than 1,000 American adults. The demographically representative sample included 455 respondents who gave to charities during the past 12 months.

Awareness among donors is low for individual brands, ranging from a low of 16 percent for Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) to a high of 32 percent for CharityWatch. Donors who said they were “very familiar” with the eight watchdogs in the survey tallied only between 3 and 6 percent.

Collectively, however, half of those surveyed were aware of one or more brands, ranging from “Very familiar” (15 percent) to “Just heard the name” (19 percent). That projects to some 53 million donors who are aware of more than one charity watchdog, according to the report data.

Brand awareness isn’t always clear, the authors warn: “Where there’s a lot of similarity there can be a lot of confusion.” The survey included a fictitious brand, CheckMeOut, and 14 percent of respondents thought they had heard of it.

Charity watchdogs have significant reach, with one-third of donors saying they use them. Comprising the one-third are 11 percent who said they always do, 10 percent who said usually, and 11 percent, sometimes. That projects to almost 36 million donors who use them at least sometimes while 75 million who rarely or never use them or are not even aware of them.

The most likely people to use charity watchdogs are young, non-White, religious, and high-income donors, but even then, the percentages don’t rise beyond 30 and 36 percent for any one demographic.

Millennials and Generation Z (72 percent) were among those who were aware of more than one brand, followed by Generation X (53 percent), and were four times more likely to consult a charity watchdog than are Boomers or seniors. “As today’s younger donors become tomorrow’s older donors, it’s entirely possible they will carry this behavior with them, and the use of watchdog organizations will increase,” the authors said.

When donors do an Internet search for charities, they might not even realize that they could end up using a watchdog organization. In a search of 25 diverse charities of all sizes, the authors found the name of the charity brought up search results that included at least one watchdog’s website within the first three pages, and usually multiple organizations. 

“They will run across information from multiple watchdog organizations without even being aware of those brands or intending to use a charity watchdog,” according to the authors.