Cover Story: Grading the charities

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - For almost two weeks now, you've seen the heartbreaking images from Haiti.  The pain is palpable and you want to help.

But just this week we saw musician Wyclef Jean step to the microphone to defend his charity from accusations of misusing donations. His organization was cleared but there are hundreds of non-profits all saying they can get your cash to where its needed most.

When it comes to fund-raising, how do you know who to support?

We want to help.. we don't want to get taken.

Without a doubt, millions of good-hearted people the world over will pour billions of dollars into helping the people of Haiti.  Proceeds from a two hour TV benefit Friday night will go to seven different non-profits.  But how can you know which charities will use the money well?

Americans went to their computers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and opened up their hearts and their wallets.

Some donors got taken to the cleaners by scammers.. who sent out e-mails seeking donations.

Even agencies like the Red Cross got into trouble for diverting some of the Katrina money to other projects.

Now with Haiti here.. some fear a pandora's box could open again.  Who's there to keep the charities honest?

"I think charities now understand that the sort of the horse is out of the barn and that they're going to be evaluated," says Sandra Miniutti, with Charity Navigator.

Since 2002, the watchdog group Charity Navigator has given grades now to more than 55-hundred charities rating them on a zero-to-four star scale.. looking at how they use their donations.

Those non-profits ranked with a 3-and a four star spend the bulk of their money on programs and services.

A zero or one-star charity the group red flags.. they're spending the bulk of their money on fundraising and or administrative costs.

Ratings come from the charities own information tax records the charities file with the IRS.

When it comes to Haiti.. Charity Navigator and others who grade non-profits say seek out groups who have history working in massive disasters..

And if you really want to make a difference find a group that's been in Haiti for a long time and can navigate the region.

Speaker and author Tony Campolo told us he's been affiliated with two groups "Beyond Borders" and "Haiti Partners" for 30 years.

They're getting villages ready for the expected exodus of Port-au-Prince.

He says, "That's what the emergency work is not doing. That's what we're doing. We are more long term.. that's what's going to happen over the next couple of weeks."

For the first time-- texting has emerged as a huge money-maker in this crisis.  The Red Cross says it received 5 million dollars in the first three days after the earthquake.

Watchdog groups warn you want to be careful about that too.

"I think that's a great way for donors to be inspired to give to Haiti relief, but I think donors still need to make sure that they go to the charities' legitimate website to get proper instructions for donating," says Miniutti.

If a group tries to solicit you through e-mail.. avoid it.. it could be a scam.

In addition to Charity Navigator.. there are others like "The Foundation Center" and the Better Business Bureau has a website go to

For more information on Charity Navigator go to