Fund For The Needy donors trust that their gifts will be handled carefully and wisely, so the agencies benefiting from the Fund are reviewed by an outside foundation and must meet specific criteria. Every dollar donated goes directly to the agencies.

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Every autumn, a team of Seattle Times reporters and editors gathers to talk about how to cover the agencies that benefit from The Seattle Times’ annual Fund For The Needy.

Even after 40 years, during which readers of The Seattle Times have donated more than $23 million ($23 million!), putting together our Fund For The Needy stories isn’t a simple task.

It starts with reporters connecting with one of the 12 agencies benefitting from the annual campaign. With the help of agency leaders, reporters find an individual or a family who can put a face on the mission. The resulting story chronicles how the clients have been pulled from a life of disarray, dependence or despair.

But it’s a higher calling than just that. The Fund is fueled by generous readers who range from six-figure software employees to kids collecting change in their classrooms. They trust that their donations will be handled carefully and wisely.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for 12 charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the season, The Times is telling how the organizations make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can have. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to the Fund For The Needy.

So when we met this year, the talk turned to transparency, and the importance of telling you — our readers and donors — how we select and vet the agencies who benefit from the Fund, and how we put the stories together.

It all starts with choosing the agencies who will receive the donations.

“Our primary focus has always been a huge component around kids and youth and family,” said Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen. “There’s been some variety, but so much of the focus is on kids and families. Inclusion. Helping people when they need a helping hand.”

The agencies are vetted every two years by The Seattle Foundation, which manages donations of about 1,200 family, individual and corporate philanthropies in the region, according to Mary Grace Roske, the Seattle Foundation’s chief brand officer.

Many philanthropies give to the Fund For The Needy “as a way to connect all the pieces of giving.”

The Seattle Foundation pores over each nonprofit and charitable trust’s 990 tax forms, “making sure that the money is being spent well,” Roske said.

“Because these are organizations that our philanthropists support, we always make sure that they are in good status with the state.”

It also has a team of community program staffers who closely review grant applications from each agency and make site visits.

The foundation keeps close ties with other nonprofits, “so by virtue of the work that we do,” Roske said, “we are in constant awareness of what’s happening out in the field.”

Along with reviewing financial and tax forms, the agencies must meet four specific criteria:

Service: “Their mission, their focus, and how that reflects the community they serve,” Roske explained. “How are they setting out to carry out their mission?”

Strategy: “How they are doing that work as it is matched by their mission,” she said, “and how they are measuring their outcomes.”

Soundness: “Their financial model, their funding sustainability and their leadership.”

And finally, each agency is judged on whether it is supported in the community with volunteers and fundraising, “and how they are viewed by their peers,” Roske said.

Six of the Fund’s 12 agencies have participated in a two-year program called Leading for Impact, a Seattle Foundation partnership with The Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits improve their capacity to be strategic and to help their leadership work better together.

“What’s impressive about this list is the range of the community needs that are addressed,” Roske said. “Everything from people with special needs to senior citizens. The geography and diversity really reflects well on The Fund for the Needy being responsive.

“At the end of the day, it’s about a positive impact for the people who live here.”

The agencies also must meet the same journalistic standards we use for every story we publish. So Seattle Times reporters conduct background checks on the clients we include in profiles, as well as thorough fact-checking, all the way up to the last minute.

It isn’t always pretty. The truth is, the charities that the Fund supports are there to help people who have had some hard luck — and some who have created their own troubles. So background checks sometimes uncover criminal convictions, bankruptcies, evictions.

Charities like The Salvation Army and Hopelink are in place to end that cycle, and support people in making new and productive lives.

But, increasingly, we are writing about people who are simply struggling to make ends meet in this region, where the cost of housing, food and other services have exploded in the last few years. The faces and lives that we help — and chronicle — are changing all the time.

What doesn’t change is that every dollar raised by the Fund For The Needy is given to the agencies it supports. The Seattle Times doesn’t keep a single cent of readers’ donations.

“To me, it’s the ultimate in outreach and engagement,” Blethen said. “It’s good for the soul.”