Donation: Some Questions About Financials Before Giving

I have been considering donating to iNaturalist, because I’ve become a huge fan of it and want to support it. I’m also hoping that with more financial support, it’ll be easier to address issues like the recent slowdowns and downtime, which have been bothering me a lot.

I had some questions though, before I give. The website says that the donation will be “received” by the California Academy of Sciences.

I tried doing some research on iNaturalist’s budget. I was interested in seeing the total budget, how much money is raised from different sources, and how the money is spent, but I have been unable to find anything of the sort.

I found the California Academy of Sciences’ Financial Reports, but given that that organization handles so much more than iNaturalist, and those reports are just very broad ones, they provided absolutely zero answers to my questions. Their consolidated reports don’t even mention iNaturalist, which gives me the sense that iNaturalist as a project is probably a drop in the bucket of this big organization. They don’t even really share much basic information about themselves as an organization; the reports frankly seemed kind of opaque to me in a way that made me feel a bit iffy about giving to them. For example, one of the most basic things I want to know about any charity is what their top employee salaries are, but they don’t even list this.

I am interested in donating to iNaturalist but I would need to be able to see some sort of budget, including both income and expenditures, in order for me to feel comfortable doing so. I would ideally like to see some basics like how many employees work on iNaturalist and roughly how much is spent on salaries, server costs and other technology costs, whether the broader organization is subsidizing iNaturalist by funnelling their general funds into it, or whether they put a portion of the iNaturalist donations (or grants) into their general fund.

Is this accessible somewhere, and if not, is this something people can prioritize publishing? I’d imagine a majority of prospective donors would be interested in this sort of information.

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I would “give” in two basic ways…

1 there is the collector on the street, with bucket and placards indicating what I am giving to. I donate relatively small amts, am not looking for financial statements, and am largely concerned about being sure it is actually them I am giving the money to rather than a fraudster impersonating… and to a large extent, I am not donating for the upcoming work they will be doing, but as a gratitude and recognition for the work they have already done, so I can see that it was put to good use just from that!

2 bequeth… when I die, a portion of my estate will be given to certain charities, and there might be constraints I place on how or where that money can be used. For this, I need a large degree of confidence that those criteria will be met, so I would expect financials and rigourous follow-up to ensure that my wishes are adhered to. I would likely involve an endowment fund or establish a trust for this.

[edit… sorry you replied too soon!]
If you are wanting to donate a large sum, then it is likely the second scenario, and you would be better to talk to them directly (I doubt anyone here in the forum will have the answers you are seeking)

If you are wanting to contribute a smaller amount, then it is likely the former scenario… and I suggest you give on the basis of what you have already “received”, and continue to tell them what it is you like about iNat so they are motivated to work in that direction.

I for one hope they are well compensated for what they do. How much they are paid is irrelevant without context of what they are expected to achieve in return.

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Hmm, this isn’t how I think about this stuff.

To me, the financial status of the gift recipient is a critically important piece of information. For example, if an organization has such a big budget that my donation is likely to have a negligible effect, and they’re paying their directors a higher salary than I’ll ever earn personally, I have no interest in giving. Not only will I not be making much of a difference, but I will implicitly be supporting a practice (such as paying people a very high salary) that I don’t agree with and don’t want to support in society, especially not for organizations that market themselves as charities.

On the other hand, if they’re doing a bang-up job creating an awesome project with minimal funding, but would be able to do a lot more with a small increase in funding, and their salaries are modest, I’m much more motivated to give.

It’s about the effect my donation has on the world, and whether or not I can do more good in the world by giving my money to the organization, or holding onto it and using it myself or giving to some other organization.

It doesn’t need to be a huge amount of research. I ideally would like the relevant information laid out in an easy-to-read format so I could spend maybe 10 minutes looking it over before deciding to give.

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I agree, this applies to everything. For those who are not aware of the issues, I doubt that @cazort is concerned about typical salaries or other compensation for academic/technical/creative/service staff, (even though they may be among the better incomes of the working population) but the million-dollar “jobs” which are ultimately paid for by the rest of us.
Unfortunately it is probably unlikely we will see far enough behind the scenes to learn these without a great deal of effort, which I personally am not prepared to make, though I applaud those who do and share that kind of information.

But it is reasonable to enquire what proportion of a donation goes directly to the creation and maintenance of a project or activity. Especially as things often change over time.

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I usually check here: https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=3406

For example, the executive director of the CAS makes $390k/a

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Ah, so if I can analogise:

I have a (small but not insignificant) amount of fertiliser, and I am looking at a plant and wanting to know if it is a sensible application for that fertiliser. There are other plants it could go to, but I like this one, especially the wonderful fruits it gives me, which until now I have been enjoying without any other input into the health of this plant.

I guess it does make sense to investigate whether the fertiliser will actually make a difference to the health and vitality of the plant. Especially so if i am looking to get more from the plant in the way of fruit, or just to improve the quality of the fruit I am getting. There is no sense in applying the fertiliser if the fruit I get in future will not be bigger or blemish free, right?

And I guess I don’t want to be encouraging that plant to grow if it sucks precious water out of the environment, even if that water is required to make the wonderful fruit that I have been enjoying, so maybe a much deeper understanding of the physiology of this plant is required before I apply my fertiliser.

But if I do that investigation, and find that the plant is sucking out a lot of water from the soil, is it neccesarily a bad thing? If that water is “liberated” from the soil and then goes on to supporting a large array of invertebrates and herbivores, which in turn breed and die and decompose and support other organisms, and recycle nutrients back to the plant itself, then maybe we find that the plant just does not need our fertiliser after all!

But maybe the fertiliser is not the important thing here. Maybe the opportunity to “give” is just another means to effect a valuing of the natural world. At our local church they pass a plate around, and I feel embarrased at the pitiful amount given. But I had one minister tell me that he sees it not so much as an income stream for the church, because they receive funds from other sources and would accomplish all they want to accomplish even if that plate was not passed around, but the act of giving is a charitable thing that lifts the spirit and connects you with God, and so they provide that opportunity… and they put the money raised to good use too… :) No one asks for financial statements as to what the church plate offerings are put to, and it is only the opponents of the church that seek to find fault in how it uses such donations, which is probably where I draw parallels to what you are doing here.

I see it as sort of similar here, in that we are offered the opportunity to acknowledge what iNat are doing through the opportunity to give. If you feel it’s not transparent enough, then I think you are looking to get a value for your dollar, that implies you have expectations on what it will be used for. If you want certainty on the value of that dollar then I think you should invest it in your own platform, for which you will have full control and transparency as to it’s use.

I find your comments regarding “marketing themselves as charities” to be very alarming. Here in New Zealand charities have to be registered as such to be able to claim tax exemptions and so forth, and there are criteria that must be met. While we might not neccesarily agree with the mission that the charity is for, the status is something that can be challenged in a court of law, and we have churches in NZ that are currently having legal battles along those lines. Other organisations are having to register as charities when previously they were operating as such with no problems or concerns. The fairly recent requirement to register was to make for transparency and increase public confidence in charitable organisations, as well as making it easier and clearer to determine taxation obligations (my interpretation, probably more complicated than that though!). I can only assume it is a similar requirement in the US, but I guess it would be State dependant as well.

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I think quite a few members of the iNat community would be interested to see some type of financial report for iNat separate from those of Cal Academy or Nat Geo. And potential donors would probably like to know whether their donations will be reserved specifically for iNat or shared across other Cal Academy initiatives.

I assume that the iNat relationship with Cal Academy is somewhat similar to the “fiscal sponsorship” approach whereby large non-profits agree to have smaller non-profit partners operate as an independent “project” of the larger organization. The small non-profit gains tax-exempt status and typically gets predictable costs for administrative overheads, while the large non-profit furthers its public mission and takes an agreed percentage of revenue (5-15 % seems normal). In this arrangement, the sponsored non-profit typically keeps separate books and bank accounts but these might not be broken out when reporting tax to the IRS.

Anecdotally, as someone who lived and worked close by the Academy of Sciences until very recently, my occasional encounters with iNat employees IRL did not give me the impression that anyone at iNat is “living it large”.

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I said “marketing themselves as charities” because I don’t believe that just because an organization has non-profit status means that it actually is doing good in society and conducting themselves like a charity.

For example, the Susan Komen for the Cure organization goes around suing other organizations “infringing on their brand”, suing organizations as broadly as phrases like “for the cure” or “for a cure” or using the color pink in association with the word “cure”.

That’s not only not behavior I’d association with a non-profit, it’s behavior that would be worse than most businesses. Most multinational corporations are even a little less aggressive at enforcing their brands and trademarks, and it’s frowned upon when they do so broadly. I would expect a “charity” to exhibit greater constraint with these things.

Add to this the stuff I’ve personally witnessed, like attending a church and hearing the pastor endorse a political candidate from the pulpit…not legal here in the U.S., but it goes on, and that church never had as much as a legal battle over its non-profit status. I also was once involved with a small non-profit organization and uncovered that the former executive director had “cooked the books” so to speak.

The prevalence of this sort of behavior in our society has made me wary of any organization claiming to be a charity. Don’t be alarmed at my use of language, be alarmed at what goes on in our society in the name of charity. I’m cautious becuase of what I’ve witnessed in our society.

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Your analogy is interesting. I can see how it makes some sense.

I think I feel differently when considering donating online, because we live in the information age where it takes negligible effort and work to display and view information.

If I were visiting a church and they pass around the collection plate, I’m not going to research the church’s financials because it’s not practical for them to do so.

However, on a website, it is super easy to display key information right out in the open. And I think it reflects well on an organization to do it. It’s like, if someone has nothing to hide, wouldn’t they want to put it all out there? If their organization is well-run, then it won’t take much effort to compile the info.

So to me, it’s a question of: “Why isn’t everyone doing this?”

Charities are supposedly serving the public, the greater good, or society as a whole. And, given the unfortunate tendency of some organizations to start working to either just further their own power interests, or enrich or empower certain individuals in positions of power, it seems like it would be a quick and easy thing to do for an organization to put their financials out in the open, a sort of like: “Hey, just in case you have any concerns or questions, check this out. See, we’re not doing anything fishy?”

And…it also seems a bit weird to me…like…both iNaturalist and the Cal Academy have MASSIVE websites…clearly, people have poured countless hours of work into creating these websites, including creating documents (like Cal Academy’s annual reports) that are primarily intended to present information to the public about what the organization is doing.

It just seems really bizarre to me that they’d put in this much work, and yet not publish more information about their financials, when it seems like this is information that a large number of prospective donors would want to see.

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Yes. This makes sense. And this is exactly the information that I would want to know when giving to iNat. It seems relevant. For example, if the parent organization were actively subsidizing iNat, this would make me feel an extra sense of urgency in donating, i.e. I would want to help iNat to become more of a self-sustaining entity. Similarly, if the portion of the funding were low, this would make me feel better about donating.

On the other hand, if it seemed that the parent organization were taking more of a share than is typical, and feeding it back into the general budget, this would give me an iffy feeling. And this would interact with other concerns.

For example, the $380K salary of the director of Cal Academy is higher than I would ideally like, so this would make me feel more sensitive to the portion of money funnelling back into the organization. Personally, I don’t like wealth inequality and even if a charity is doing good, as top salaries start creeping up high, I start weighing the good that they are doing against the “evil” that I see them doing promoting wealth inequality by having a larger difference like this. For example, it’s a major reason why I don’t donate any money to any of the three colleges / universities I have degrees from. They all pay their top people ungodly amounts of money (much more than Cal Academy’s director, unfortunately.)

Am I just some bitter person with a radical ideology? I don’t know. Some people might label me this way.

But I just don’t like this stuff. I think there is a certain point after which people start earning so much money that they’re part of this hyper-privileged class…getting severance packages, mid to high six figure salaries that would be enough to pay the salaries of multiple individual employees at a normal pay level. And it’s utterly puzzling to me because I’ve never had an income anywhere near this high, yet I enjoy a level of material luxury that I think is entirely unnecessary, and that a lot of people either in other parts of the world, or in the past in our own country, would be incredibly grateful to enjoy. So why anyone would need a salary this high is beyond me, and it seems to be an unhealthy form of greed that society is enabling by paying them this much and acting like it’s okay to pay people this much.

And the fact that we live in a society where some people don’t have health insurance, and yet other people are getting paid this much? I find it nauseating and infuriating and I think it is quite reasonable for me not only to be upset by this stuff, but to be coming down very hard on any organization that has non-profit but is still playing into this culture.

I think a lot about what kind of society I want to live in, what I like and don’t like about the structure of our society. I want charities to be more transparent. I want there to be less of a disparity between top and bottom salaries. And I want resources in society to be efficiently utilized!

Personally, I am alarmed and weirded out by how so many people just ignore this stuff. It seems to me that a lot of problems in our society would solve themselves if more people talked about this stuff and stopped labeling me as weird for asking questions about it.

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To the limited extent that I know about the California Academy of Science, it has a good reputation for maintaining important science collections. Although I wouldn’t have any reservations about contributing to them (with the gift specified for iNaturalist, in this case) I think it’s entirely reasonable to contact CAS directly and ask for more information.

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I am a regular volunteer in the Entomology department at Cal. Academy of Sciences and have also donated money to them. I don’t have any knowledge of the budget or financials of CAS or iNaturalist, but I can tell you everyone I’ve interacted with have been dedicated scientists eager to share their knowledge and support the missions of the museum. I strongly suspect that, like most museum-based personnel, they are significantly underpaid relative to their value to our society. If you are able to get some details of the finances, please also keep in mind that the San Francisco Bay Area is perhaps the most expensive place to live in the US, with small apartments costing thousands of dollars a month to rent.

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I share a lot of your concerns when considering organizations that I support with my time and money. And I also recognize that a lot of others may see this as applying way more scrutiny than they would typically bother with.

If any iNat staff are reading, they may want to consider (in time) whether they’re able to provide some kind of report that breaks out the iNat budget and activities. I’m guessing they already do this for Cal Academy and NatGeo, so maybe some version of that would help attract donors without taking time away from the bigger tasks of building the product and growing the community.

If it helps ease your concerns at all, I don’t recall any major scandals with the operation of Cal Academy during the past ten years. I would contrast that with the nearby San Francisco Botanical Garden, which (in my view) is a formerly fine institution that has suffered from dismal governance and now largely exists to pamper the egos of its wealthy board members. Or the San Francisco Parks Alliance, which exists as a way for wealthy donors to put their names on park projects and simultaneously remove them from the scrutiny of SF voters.

And, as @kschnei says, living in the Bay Area is expensive, so factor that into your assessment of any budget info you come across.

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Yes, I had thought about this. I lived in CA for a while, not even in the bay area, but I definitely was shocked by the disparity in cost of living. But I have been to the bay area many times and have friends and family who live there, and it can be nuts.

How I feel about this is complex though. Part of me thinks…for a national outfit like iNaturalist, say they located in small midwestern city, especially one of the rust belt ones…maybe they’d be able to accomplish more with the same budget?

But it does make it more reasonable for a specific level of salary.

This sort of speculation doesn’t actually help, though. They aren’t in the mid-west and even if they were, perhaps if they were in the middle of Siberia they could achieve even more… the point is you can’t tell how much they could achieve if ANY variable were altered. For every argument one way, you can argue the other way just as easily… perhaps being in the SFBay area they are closer to the “big money fat cats” that occupy the upper bracket of the income disparity that you are de-crying, so are better placed to capitalise on those income streams. Perhaps paying 300k to a director so that he can “foot-it” with the 10M philanthropists produces a nett gain in what the organisation accomplishes. This is just not the place to undertake such studies!

It’s a church plate donation scenario, and the opportunity is available I am sure to approach iNat and CAS for “investment prospectus” level financials if that is what you require. The sort of “simple financials” you are suggesting here are just not going to give any useful information.

It’s a bit like wanting to buy a car, and only looking at the mileage per gallon… that one metric is not going to give you a good indication of what vehicle is best for the environment, or which is better value for your money now, vs maintenance costs over the life of the car, and so on.

In New Zealand we have the Consumers Institute, which undertakes (presumably) impartial testing and comparison of consumer goods and services. They are seldom the sort of tests where it is “good investment” or “bad investment”, but rather the comparitive type that rate them relative to each other. That is the sort of metrics that will give realistic information to you in order to make informed decisions about whether to invest your donation with iNat or not. Is there a US or international agency that would be impartial and on-mission to undertake such assessments? They have all sorts of badges and marks for “responsible coffee growers” and such like, surely there is one for “rating” charitable organisations.

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As an example, although this is an “article” rather than a product/service comparison, this from the NZ Consumers Institute on cold call solicitation for donations:

https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/donating-to-a-charity

Given the worldwide scope of iNaturalist it is only sensible to consider moving the entire operation out of California AND also consider to cut all ties to CAS

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This is an interesting question…and I see this point.

But, if this is true, it also would reinforce a personal decision of me not wanting to donate money in this case, if that makes sense?

It’s like, I’m not in that “fat cats” category and don’t particularly want to be, nor do I really have much interest in associating with that whole system (i.e. I want my life choices to work to deconstruct that system to as great a degree as possible, I don’t want to be supporting, encouraging, or enabling it), so I can happily use iNaturalist and contribute my time and effort to it, while reserving my financial support (which will always be relatively small because it’s what I can give) for other organizations that are operated more in line with my value system and vision for the type of society I want to bring into being and live in.

So it’s like, if that’s the philosophy or approach behind the organization, given the current state of our society (where things work that way more than I’d ideally like them to), they’ll probably do fine financially without the support of me and people like me, and my money would be better spent towards organizations that are struggling more financially, and using their money in ways that are more sensitive to things like efficiency and wealth inequality.

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Yes, I had this thought myself, about the location, although I don’t know much about the ties to CAS and what that would entail. (Organizations can remain affiliated with a local or regional organization, but locate somewhere else, and I see this all the time, like with state universities that have a satellite program in some other country.)

But back to the topic of location, countries like India have proved that, in areas with lower costs of living, organizations can achieve MUCH more with minimal budgets, whether charities, businesses producing high-quality goods very cheaply, or that incredibly impressive space program that India has been carrying out with what looks like a shoestring budget relative to NASA.

If iNaturalist is truly committed to being global, why not locate in a country like India that has a strong educational system (including a very active sector relating to the creation and maintenance of apps and websites, India is a leader in this category), and a low cost of living? Add to that that it’s close to some incredible hotspots of biodiversity but also heavily threatened by human population…it just seems to make more sense in the long-run.

And, with something that is (a) global and (b) an online community, it’s easy to be located just about anywhere.

I think here in the U.S. the mainstream culture can be painfully out of touch sometimes. Like, even the average middle-income person here enjoys a level of privilege (and luxury) that is kind of disturbing when you look elsewhere in the world. And it’s entirely unnecessary.

Also, a lot of the cost of the living in the US is related to things that directly threaten the environment…like our car-oriented lifestyle and high rate of electricity consumption, and the culture of disposability. iNaturalist is something that has a purpose of conservation of biodiversity driving a lot of the motivation both behinds its creation and its use. It seems problematic for us to have the organization headquartered in a country that is pretty much the world’s poster child for wasteful consumption.

I would like us to start asking much tougher questions about how we use our resources.

The more I converse in this thread and reflect on what is being said, the more I feel like it’s unlikely I’m going to be donating to iNaturalist any time soon. The more I think about this, the more I realize that its location in the bay area, one of the most expensive parts of California, which is one of the most expensive parts of the US, which is itself one of the more expensive countries in the world…i just doesn’t make sense.

Very intersting indeed !!! May I suggest that fellows as yourself intersted in a high impact donations work with local groups like Boy Scouts and encourage family outings to photograph plants and animals, in that way water or any other refresments may be provided thanks to affordable donations.

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