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Published: Sunday, July 17, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Charity data show how Snohomish County gives

I write a weekly feature for The Herald highlighting volunteers and charities around Snohomish County.

Most of the time, I know what I will write about the following week. Occasionally, I find myself struggling to find a story. But I always know I can count on a reader to tip me off to a worthy cause I haven't heard about yet.

That's how I found the couple who take their trailer around the county and offer homeless people hot showers and free toiletries.

There are charities here dedicated to just about every cause. Many of the groups can be found on the Washington Secretary of State's website. State law requires charities to register every year and report their financial information.

Churches and volunteer-run groups raising less than $25,000 a year are exempt. If you want more details, look through Washington's Charitable Solicitations Act.

The words "charity" and "nonprofit" are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Charities collect public donations with a benevolent goal. The word "nonprofit" simply means that the organization's goal is to further a cause rather than to make money.

We obtained data about Snohomish County-based charities registered with the state and analyzed their financial information for 2009, the most recent year with complete information.

The 350 charities we examined poured more than $303 million into causes here and abroad. We grouped them into broad categories based on their missions in order to see how money is being distributed across different focus areas.

In hard times, we've all heard that we need to get our priorities straight, invest in our children and help our neighbors emerge from the recession. The charities we choose to support as a society speak to our priorities.

In the course of our data analysis, we saw that Snohomish County-based charities spent the most money on health -- almost $115 million.

Charities spent more than $15.6 million on senior citizens and $12.7 on youth services.

About $10.9 million went to helping the poor, and $10.5 million was spent to help animals.

The database listed 18 organizations devoted to helping animals here. That's more than the number of charities focused on environment, people with disabilities or public safety.

Five of the animal charities are dedicated to helping horses. That's more than the number of groups devoted to helping crime victims. One organization, Zazu's House Parrot Sanctuary in Maltby, aims to provide a permanent home for macaws.

Please remember that this data set provides only a snapshot. For example, the data contains only two charities specifically dedicated to the needs of veterans. That doesn't mean that only two organizations are helping veterans here, just not many make that their main focus. The Herald has reported several small, volunteer-run groups that work with veterans. They aren't on this list because they are exempt from registration. Large charities, such as Catholic Community Services, also have programs aimed at veterans.

The Secretary of State calculates what percentage of a charity's expenses goes toward programs and services. Salaries, rent and fundraising costs are examples of expenses that usually don't count toward programs and services.

According to the data analyzed by The Herald, the 83 registered PTAs and school organizations spent 49 percent of their total expenses of almost $4.3 million toward programs and services.

The 20 charities with international missions spent 91 percent of $1.8 million directly on their causes.

The percentage to program should not be the sole indicator of how a charity is doing, said Rebecca Sherrell from the Secretary of State's Office. But it should give donors a pretty good idea about how their money will be distributed.

Organizations that use paid fundraisers usually have fewer dollars going directly to their mission.

Each of us needs to decide what meets our standards.

Before you give to a charity, it's not a bad idea to find out how that organization runs its shop. The searchable database on the Secretary of State's website is a good place to start.

Here is a list of other helpful resources:

Charity Navigator:

American Institute of Philanthropy:

Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance:


For a list of Snohomish and Island county charities that need help, see The Herald's Ways to Give list here.
Story tags » CharityVolunteer


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