Tucked into Preble Street’s annual holiday season appeal for donations is a business card touting the nonprofit’s four-star rating from Charity Navigator.

New Jersey-based Charity Navigator evaluates more than 8,000 charities across the country through a number of metrics – such as transparency of financial information, whether they have an independent board of directors and how much they spend on administrative overhead.

Preble Street earned the top rating of the 43 nonprofit groups in Maine rated by Charity Navigator, with a score of 99.17 out of 100. Preble Street operates with a $9 million budget, running homeless shelters and a food pantry in Portland, as well as various programs to help low-income and mentally ill people.

Mark Swann, Preble Street’s executive director, said that this year was the first time the rating was mentioned in promotional material for its annual fundraiser, despite the group receiving a four-star rating from Charity Navigator nine years in a row. Swann said the ratings were included in the fundraiser this year because donors increasingly look at how charities perform, to make sure their dollars are being spent wisely.

“People nowadays like to do their homework before supporting nonprofits, and they should be. It’s really about fiscal responsibility, transparency and openness, and this organization is an open book,” Swann said. “There have been many well-publicized scandals.”

One of those scandals was an embezzlement case at York County Community Action Corp. in Sanford. Former executive director Thomas Nelson pleaded guilty in July 2012 to embezzling $900,000 from the nonprofit, in part to fuel a gambling addiction. He was sentenced in 2013 to 21/2 years in prison.

Charity Navigator still lists York County Community Action on its “Donor Advisory” list, which is an alert that cautions potential donors about wrongdoing at nonprofits. Summaries and links to stories about Nelson are listed on Charity Navigator’s “Donor Advisory” page.

Barbara Crider, York County Community Action’s executive director, wasn’t aware that Nelson’s crimes were still being held against the agency, and she planned to contact Charity Navigator to see what could be done.

“It’s troubling. He hasn’t worked for our organization since 2010,” Crider said. “We’ve certainly moved beyond that.”

She said the nonprofit – which has a $16 million budget and provides numerous services for low-income families, including early childhood programs, transportation and operating a health center – did not suffer a downturn in donations after Nelson’s crimes came to light. She said her agency’s finances have since been scrutinized by third-party auditors and have been found to be clean.

“Our organization was victimized, and the community members who supported us felt as well that we were victims,” Crider said.

Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, said nonprofits remain on the “Donor Advisory” list for at least a year after such problems surface. She said if the nonprofit contacts Charity Navigator and makes a compelling case to be taken off the list, they will be removed.

Miniutti said Charity Navigator has not been contacted by York County Community Action. Crider said she had never heard of Charity Navigator until Friday.

Scott Schnapp, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said groups like Charity Navigator are a useful tool, but people shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from a national group. He said nothing will replace neighbors knowing their local charities and seeing first-hand what they do.

“It’s sort of like teaching to the test,” Schnapp said. “To some extent, nonprofits learn how to play the game and they start learning what can be done to get their scores higher.”

But Schnapp said nonprofits should be transparent in their finances, and if Charity Navigator spurs some nonprofits to do so, that’s a positive step.

Miniutti said Charity Navigator’s ratings are a way for donors to “quickly tell if a charity is on the up-and-up.”

“Our ratings are not the whole story, but they are an important part of the story,” Miniutti said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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Twitter: @joelawlorph