WASHINGTON – Eleven nonprofits on Tuesday earned Maryland’s “Standards for Excellence” seal, an award given to organizations that adhere to a code of ethics and accountability.
Project PLASE, the Marian House, Franciscan Center, Chrysalis House, U.S. Lacrosse, St. Vincent de Paul, Hospice of the Chesapeake, Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and the Arcs of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties all gained recognition in North Bethesda.
They joined 53 other Maryland nonprofits that have met more than 60 requirements — including truthful fund-raising practices and a conflict-of-interest policy — developed by the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations to help increase the public’s trust in this sector.
“Holding strong standards is an excellent idea,” said Maureen Williams with Applied Business Services Inc., which specializes in nonprofit software. “As a donor, I’d like to know if my money is being used wisely — especially these days.”
Just last week, the American Red Cross said its response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita drained its Disaster Relief Fund and forced it to borrow $340 million to cover costs. In March 2004 the former chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area pleaded guilty to defrauding the charity of almost $500,000.
Nationally, the Hauser Center for nonprofits at Harvard University catalogued 152 cases involving allegations of criminal and civil wrongdoing by officers and directors of charitable organizations that were reported in the press between 1995 and 2002.
Locally, more than two-fifths of 116 Maryland groups evaluated by Charity Navigator received a rating of two stars or fewer, with four earning a score of zero.
While nonprofits have made headlines for their scandals, said Herman Taylor, president of BBB Wise Giving Alliance, part of the problem lies with the press.
“These activities … leave the sad and misleading impression with an uninformed public that many of us establish charities simply to rip off donors or cheat the government out of taxes,” he said. “One negative story in a major newspaper or in the electronic media has more impact on the perception of most people than any accountability program now in existence.”
Uninformed donors are also to blame, Taylor added.
“We generally assume that donors choose to support charities that meet the highest ethical standards,” he said. “The (hurricane) disasters are a great example of this problem. … We’re hungry to help the Gulf Coast, so we write checks before even knowing who we’re giving them to.”
Maryland’s Standards for Excellence program was created to help address problems like these.
It has been replicated by seven states, including Ohio, Idaho, Georgia, Chicago, Louisiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Both new and old recipients of Maryland’s award offered praise.
“(It) leads to transparency and trust,” said Lorene Lake with the Chrysalis House, a first-time champion. “It was the process that helped more than anything.”
Lake said the program made her nonprofit improve its management procedures, create a conflict-of-interest policy and discuss standards with staff members.
“It’s a whole value system,” said William Ewing, executive director of Maryland Food Bank, which won in 1999. “It’s one of the most important things any nonprofit can go through.”