Hoaxes & Rumors

True or False: “Think Before You Donate” Charity Claims

True or False: “Think Before You Donate” Charity Claims

Today we look at a graphic entitled “Think Before You Donate” which claims to compare the annual salaries of multiple charity executives.

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Analysis of “Think Before You Donate” Graphic

A graphic called “Think Before You Donate” allegedly compares the earnings of several charities’ executives. It encourages readers to only donate to those with lower-paid administrators.

"Think Before You Donate" charity graphic

The first part of the claim presents five charities in a negative light. We’ll take a look at all of these claims first. To make it an even playing field among all the claims below, we’ll list executive compensation and program expense percentage for all charities below, even if they aren’t mentioned for a specific charity in the claims. Program expense is the amount spent on the cause for which they exist.

Note: The figures below are as of November 2014.

Charities Presented Negatively by the Graphic

American Red Cross

  • Graphic Claim: President and CEO Marsha J. Evans’ salary for the year was $651,957 plus expenses 
  • Facts: Marsha J. Evans was CEO of the American Red Cross from 2002-2005. In December 2005 she received a severance package of $780,000. This included 18 months of salary plus $36,495 in an unpaid bonus. Based on this figure, this would work out to about $495,000 per year. The current CEO and President, Gail J. McGovern, actually earned more than claimed above, at $1,032,022 in 2009. Nonetheless, the Charity Navigator link below lists her compensation for 2013 at $564,864.
  • Program Expenses: 90.4%

March of Dimes

  • Graphic Claim: It is called March of Dimes because only a dime for every 1 dollar is given to the needy.
  • Facts: The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was founded in 1938 and was nicknamed the “March of Dimes” after fundraisers which requested that each child donate a dime (the name was officially changed years later). It should be noted that in 2012 President Jennifer Howse received a salary of $526,679.
  • Program Expenses: 66%76%

The United Way

  • Graphic Claim: President Brian Gallagher receives a $375,000 base salary along with numerous expense benefits.
  • Facts: As of 2012, President and CEO Brian Gallagher actually made more than claimed, at $1,220,305.
  • Program Expenses: 90%90.6% 


  • Graphic Claim: CEO Caryl M Stern receives $1,200,000 per year ($100k per month) plus all expenses including a Rolls Royce. Less than 5 cents of your donated dollar goes to the cause.
  • Facts: President and CEO Caryl M. Stern’s compensation is currently listed at $476,001 for 2013. There is no source or evidence to support the Rolls Royce claim.
  • Program Expenses: 90%91.1% 
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  • Graphic Claim: CEO and owner Mark Curran profits $2.3 million a year. Goodwill is a very catchy name for his business. You donate to his business and then he sells the items for PROFIT. He pays nothing for his products and pays his workers minimum wage! Nice guy. $0.00 goes to help anyone! Stop giving to this man.
  • Facts: This claim is completely false. According to the Goodwill website in 2013: “82 percent of Goodwill’s revenues go directly into employment and training programs for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment!” Jim Gibbons is the CEO of Goodwill Industries International and his compensation in 2011 was reported to be $729,310. Goodwill has refuted some of the claims from the “Think Before You Donate” graphic here.
  • Program Expenses:  92%

Charities Presented Positively by the Graphic

The next set of charities are presented in the graphic in a positive light, shown in contrast to those listed above. It should be noted that some of these veterans organizations have fundraising foundations, which are not the same as the parent organization.

It should also be noted that, despite the claims below, none of the charities here give 100% of all donations to their causes.

The Salvation Army

  • Graphic Claim: Commissioner Todd Bassett receives a small salary of only $13,000 per year (plus housing) for managing this $2 billion dollar organization. 96 percent of donated dollars go to the cause.
  • Facts: A November 2011 BBB report showed that National Commander William A. Roberts actually received $126,920 in compensation.
  • Program Expenses: 84%

The American Legion

  • Graphic Claim: National Commander receives a $0.00 zero salary. Your donations go to help Veterans and their families and youth!
  • Facts:  In 2009, the three officers listed on form 990 were compensated $201,611, $152,618, and $162,787.
  • Program Expenses:  Did not disclose.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars

  • Graphic Claim: National Commander receives a $0.00 zero salary. Your donations go to help Veterans and their families and youth!
  • Facts:  A 2010 report showed the top compensation for the VFW to be $238,211. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation is the official charity for the VFW. The director of the Foundation is John G. Lowe, who is not compensated directly, but received $89,250 in compensation from affiliates in 2013.
  • Program Expenses: 86%

The Disabled American Veterans

  • Graphic Claim: National Commander receives a $0.00 zero salary. Your donations go to help Veterans and their families and youth!
  • Facts:  The current National Commander of the Disabled American Veterans is Larry A. Polzin. Chairman of the DAV Charitable Service Trust is Richard E. Marbes. As of 2012, no compensation has been reported for leadership.
  • Program Expenses: 76%93.5% (We are still looking into the reason for the discrepancy between figures as reported by give.org and charitynavigator.org)

The Military Order of Purple Hearts

  • Graphic Claim: National Commander receives a $0.00 zero salary. Your donations go to help Veterans and their families and youth!
  • Facts:  According to 2009 financial statements, Former Executive Director Gregory A. Bresser received a $40,000 severance payment. CFO Stephen L. Ruckman received $150,626.
  • Program Expenses:  Did not disclose.

The Vietnam Veterans Association

  • Graphic Claim: National Commander receives a $0.00 zero salary. Your donations go to help Veterans and their families and youth!
  • Facts:  There is no known “Vietnam Veterans Association.” The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, AKA Veterans for America, paid President John Rowan $69,874 and CFO/Staff Director Joseph Sternburg $137,902 in 2009.
  • Program Expenses:  Did not disclose.

Make a Wish

  • Graphic Claim: For children’s last wishes. 100% goes to funding trips or special wishes for a dying child.
  • Facts:  In 2013, David A. Williams, CEO and President, was compensated $479,676 .
  • Program Expenses: 73.3%81%

St. Jude’s Research Hospital

  • Graphic Claim: 100% goes towards funding and helping Children with Cancer who have no insurance and cannot afford to pay.
  • Facts: The 100% claim is not even supported by St. Jude, which stated on their on their website in 2013, “During the past five years, 81 cents of every dollar received has supported the research and treatment at St. Jude.” However, this quote no longer appears on the website when revisited in November of 2014. CEO William E. Evans received compensation of $824,000 according to a 2011 form 990. Charity Navigator reports that CEO William E. Evans was compensated $941,143 in 2013.
  • Program Expenses:  69.3%73%

Ronald McDonald Houses

  • Graphic Claim: All monies go to running the houses for parents who have critical Children in the hospital. 100% goes to housing and feeding the families.
  • Facts:  President and CEO J. C. Gonzalez-Mendez is not compensated.
  • Program Expenses: 79%89% 

Lions Club International

  • 100% of donations go to help the blind buy hearing aides, support medical missions around the world. Their latest undertaking is measles vaccinations (only $1.00 per shot).
  • Facts:  Executive Director Peter Lynch received no direct compensation, but did receive $226,049  in affiliate compensations for 2013. The organization does have a measles prevention campaign.
  • Program Expenses: 83.7% 

“Think Before You Donate” on Google Trends

Google Trends shows a graph revealing search interests in “Think Before You Donate”. As one can see, searches for this phrase peaked in February of 2013 when this post was originally published, and surged again in November of 2013 before dropping off.

Bottom Line

The “Think Before You Donate” graphic claim attempts to categorize good and bad charities, however there aren’t as many differences between them as we are led to believe. Most charities have high-paid executives, and all the charities listed above incur expense costs that prevent them from using 100% of all monies collected toward their causes.

You should definitely research a charity before you donate, just as you should research online warnings such as these before you believe them.

Revised November 24, 2014
Originally published February 2013

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  • Cauthon

    And, depending on what you are concerned about, there may be a charity run by a church and staffed mostly with volunteers. If any of the staff do receive compensation, the church can sometimes pay that from other sources such as general, un-specified donations, enabling the church to truthfully say that all money donated to the charity goes for the charitable purpose.

  • Cauthon

    As for Good Will paying low wages, one important function of such an organization is to employ people who have not been able to find jobs in the ordinary private sector. Someone who has had problems and wants to return to employment might not be skilled and capable for highly paid work, and a temporary job at low pay might turn into a step up toward more normal employment at better pay. Similarly, when I was a teenager just entering the work force, the minimum wage was $1 /HR and we could work – when there was work – and save money for post-secondary education, hoping to make better wages later. Forcing employers to pay high wages might be fun, but it promotes automation and out-sourcing to foreign competitors, leaving millions of Americans with no job at all.

  • Mark Hahn

    Pease put a “HOAX” watermark over the image. The problem is that it gets passed around in email chains and social networks, and it’s lies live on.

  • Graceman

    salvation army has a terrible track record of LGBT discrimination.
    There is a section on their bylaws calling for the death of lesbian
    women with children. The director brushed this off as “antiquated
    language” that is certainly not followed….

  • stubbikins

    Nothing is free. Want to pay for a truck full of food to go to a disaster area? Guess what, you have to pay for the truck, the food, the driver, the gas…

    Those are expenses

  • stubbikins

    You cannot get quality leadership without competitive pay. These are HUGE complicated organizations and these pay scales are actually FAR below what a qualified person would make in private industry.

  • Plisko

    I believe in using personal charitability, not organized charities. . . when possible.

  • Booker Trouble

    A better prespective of the facts.

  • Sam Greenaum

    They can’t spend your time on expensive cars! If your work is directly helping people, then you’ve done good. Depends what you volunteer at, sure there’s something worthwhile, besides these bandits.

    You could work with the homeless or something like that, or the environment. Or the elderly, or sick people or children. If you do the work at ground level, you know it’s helping.

  • Sam Greenaum

    When you say “program expenses”, you mean the amount that the organisation spends on employee wages, offices, etc. The amount that doesn’t go the the people they help, right?

    If that’s the case, it’s shocking! Worth checking out charities before you give.

    I would also add, I dunno if you have “charity muggers” in the USA. We have them in Britain. People who stand on the street, asking you to sign a bank order giving them money each month.

    These are run by private companies, on behalf of the charity. The private company takes a share of the cash. In fact one organisations has been listed as taking the first £200 worth of monthly contributions before the charity gets anything. If you’re going to give to a charity, send them a cheque, or see their website for details of transferring money. Much better than using a greedy middleman.

    Although of course that’s for charities who actually SPEND the money on the needy. How shameless can you be, to run a racket like that to mostly support a business? Why can’t a charity have it’s admin centre in a poor country, employ people there for much less money, and have it help an economy that needs the money?

    • Sam Greenaum

      Ah right. “Program expenses” is how much they spend on actually doing charity work. Shouldn’t really call it “expenses”, it’s not. “Spending” would be better. Makes it look a bit better.

  • harpat

    Besides excessive salaries there are potential other ways donations can be abused. There can be cronyism in hiring, graft and favoritism in purchasing and contract administration and so on.

  • Jim

    Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Pick one and make a difference!

  • Craig Smith

    I worked for a local Goodwill, and I resigned in less than a year because of the unscrupulous manor in which the local organization spent funds. The director made nearly $90K, and she didn’t so much as manage a single store (which there were 9). The only thing she managed to do was intimidate the workers, claim their successes as her own, and of course, get here nails and hair done on company time.

    Yes, before you donate you should really investigate. As a 501(c)(3) all you have to do is ask a non-profit group for the financials, and if they’re transparent in their actions, they will provide them. If they don’t… then that should be a huge clue for you!

    • Charles Stansfield

      A non-profit organization is required by law to provide upon request their income filing for the previous year to the IRS. This filing is called a 990. It will show total income and expenses for the previous year, where the expenses went to, the salaries of top officers (if any), etc.

  • Buffet

    As someone who has sometimes “given till it hurts” I am forever indebted to you for opening my eyes! Thank you.

  • David

    You are better off finding a person or family in your area that truly need help with some area of their lives and give the money directly to them. Even if they blow 50% its still better than the 75-95% of your donation that goes straight into the pockets of people with enough money already.

  • Jim Kress

    You do understand there is a difference between salary and compensation?

    • Charles Stansfield


  • Big Beefa

    Thanks Waffles

    This has been helpful.


  • Big Beefa

    Who was the author of this article? Who are the legitimate sources for this information? I see BBB and I’ve heard Charity Navigator as well.

    I am looking to donate money for releif efforts in the Philippines but need to make an informed decision here without getting lost in the debate over which non-profit is legit and which one is a waste. Any recommendations?


    • waffles

      It is a staff-written article, and all of the sources are linked. The BBB and Charity Navigator are both well-respected sources for evaluating charities.

    • Terry

      Wounded Warriors or virtually ANY of the Veteran charity organizations who help our Veterans… Or http://www.guidestar.org/Home.aspx.

  • Tucker

    Sorry if I’m a little late to this party but I just read this and I’m confused about the Lions Clubs entry. I’m not sure where these numbers are coming from, but the Lions, from new volunteers to the International Director are all unpaid. That’s why they claim 100% donated funds go back into the community. Where did the “84%” come from? Thanks!

    • waffles

      That’s the number reported by Charity Navigator.

    • Sam Greenaum

      CEOs live in the community too!

    • stubbikins

      No charity is free, they have real expenses. Even if staff volunteer there are still materials, travel costs, office costs, etc.

  • Diehard

    I believe that if you compare the amount that the CEO’s of the various organizations make, you should donate to those that pays the CEO’s the least and most of the money goes to the people in need! The purpose of giving is to help those in need, NOT to make yet one more fat cat have a spare mansion on some secluded island. To not give at all like Matt G. says is to not care enough to give. Giving is and should be to benefit those in need! Do so wisely, don’t just give to make yourself feel good. It’s about helping others, not yourself.Love to all!

  • Matt G.

    Executives are paid well everywhere. Not just limited to charities. The purpose to donate is to believe your helping a greater cause. If your gonna let these statistics change the way you donate, then dont bother. Who cares if the numbers are right or wrong. We may never know the truth anyways.

    • Sam Greenaum

      The point is, you give money intending most of it to go to someone who is in need of it. Not rich office workers. If they told the truth, if they publicised these figures, I’m pretty sure their donations would drop off to nothing. And it’d be no great loss. More legitimate charities could have the money instead.

      The rich parasiting from the most needy, it’s terrible.

    • Sandika

      Spoken like a highly-paid CEO of a “non-profit” charity.

  • Marjorie

    Additionally, employees’ salaries and benefits for that is spent on the programs are included in program expenses. Often this includes part of the CEO/president salary too.
    People complain about expense spent on administration and fundraising, but you can’t have reports like these without the tasks that fall into those areas. Creating financial reports, reporting to funders, employee management and stewarding donors are all critical tasks for a nonprofit. If these aren’t done right, then the nonprofit ends up in the news for being mismanaged.

  • Mighty Mo

    Mare M, if you read the top part you would have seen this: “Program expense is the amount spent on the cause for which they exist.”

  • Jay H. McKinley

    I do not understand our math. For Goodwill you quote them as saying 82 % of their donations go to helping people. Yet at the end of your answer you say Goodwill’s expenses are 92%. How can this be?

    • waffles

      Hey Jay, and thanks for your comment. To clarify: Goodwill states that it is 82%, and the BBB states it is 92%, so we have two sets of numbers at our disposal. The discrepancy could be a variation over time or perhaps different interpretation of data.

    • stubbikins

      Goodwill does not donate cash, they provide services, The people providing services have to be paid

  • WMccreery

    I worked at SoCal Goodwill. At first they did try to help clients to get work in the real world, but when the stae of Califdrnia stopped paying for the program they reduced thier wages to the same level as a new employee, even some had there for a decade or longer. They also exiled them to the back area so they would interact with the customers!

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