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Sarah Walton is the Director of Development at the Maryland SPCA.
Sarah Walton is the Director of Development at the Maryland SPCA. (Karen Jackson, Patuxent Publishing)

The SPCA's efforts are also paying off in national recognition. For the first time since 2001, the organation has received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, a nonprofit service that evaluates 501(c)(3) nonprofits and public charities nationwide.

The SPCA and the National Aquarium in Baltimore are the only two organizations in the city to receive a four-star rating in Charity Navigator's Animal Rights, Welfare and Services category, according to Charity Navigator's website, http://www.charitynavigator.org. Others nonprofits that win four-star ratings in north Baltimore include Blue Water Baltimore and the Baltimore Museum of Art.

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New Jersey-based Charity Navigator, which bases its ratings largely on good governance and fiscal responsibility, upgraded the SPCA from a three-star rating after the SPCA made some additions to its public disclosures.

Walton, the SPCA director of development, said a donor, whom she would not name, called to ask why the SPCA only had a three-star rating.

"It got me thinking (about) what kind of changes we could do to improve transparency and accountability," said Walton, of Hampden.

She said the donor, one of the SPCA's most generous, was using Charity Navigator as a tool to decide where to give money.

"A lot of donors are using Charity Navigator," Walton said. "Our donors really want to see their dollars going directly to saving lives and helping the animals."

Echoing that assessment is Charity Navigator's vice president of marketing, Sandra Miniutti.

"We look at the things donors look at most: how much of (organizations') budgets are going into their programs and mission versus overhead," Miniutti said.

In most ways, the SPCA measures up, Miniutti said.

"They're very financially healthy," she said. "They are really an efficicient charity."

And, she said the SPCA has been able to expand its programming even in a bad economy and has enough of a rainy day fund to carry it for five years, even if it had no other funds available and had to live off liquid assets.

All of that is good news for donors, Miniutti said.

"Donors really have to look under the hood to make sure that you're fisclly healthy, ethical and effective, otherwise they're wasting their money," she said.

The only downside to the SPCA is that it is spending an average of 24 cents to to raise each dollar, compared to the ideal ratio of 13 cents per dollar.

But she said, "It's nothing for donors to worry about."

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