Much of the nation’s charitable giving occurs between #GivingTuesday, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and Dec. 31. In 2016, donations on Nov. 29 soared 44 percent from the previous year, raising $168 million. Giving Tuesday is a day to volunteer for or donate to your favorite cause, whether large or national or small and local. But it’s just the beginning of the season.
If you’re in the mood to give, but you worry about how your money will be used (most of us do), keep in mind it’s important not to focus completely on administrative costs as a benchmark for assessing a charity’s success. A certain amount of overhead is necessary for a nonprofit to function and grow its goals. In 2013, several charity watchdog sites wrote an open letter to address the misconceptions around the “overhead myth.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use robust metrics to vet an organization. You should. But how to begin?
How to decide on a charity
First, consider a cause that speaks to you and whether you want to give nationally or locally. Most of us have a few arenas we care deeply about. Talk to friends or family for recommendations.
Next, gather information about a particular nonprofit. A good place to start is with the charity sites that review or rate charities. Charity Navigator rates organizations on financial health, accountability and transparency. A good benchmark, according to Charity Navigator, is 75 percent of income going toward programs or the organization’s mission. GuideStar, which lists 1.8 million charities, doesn’t rate organizations but does provide information on their executive salaries, spending and income by providing access to Form 990s, the basic Internal Revenue Service filing document. For a fee, you can dig even deeper. BBB Wise Giving Alliance, affiliated with the Council for Better Business Bureaus, also provides reviews of national charities using accountability standards (but doesn’t rate them). GiveWell, a smaller charity information site, conducts in-depth research on nonprofits and offers a few top recommendations. Also try GreatNonprofits.org, where you can find nonprofits local to your city. Talking to an organization directly about their goals and mission will also give you good information.
Third, determine an annual budget for yourself and commit to recurring contributions for a cause or two. My husband contributes a small monthly sum to a regional NPR station with a jazz focus because playing jazz is a big part of his life and he supports objective journalism.
If you don’t have the financial budget to give hard-earned dollars, consider donating your time or a skill. Spending time onsite at a nonprofit will also give you a look at how it operates. Finally, be sure to keep a record of your contribution for your tax return.
A few ideas to get you going
Consider these national organizations or find a lesser-known one that speaks to you. The following is a brief selection of worthy causes to get you thinking.
Equal Justice Initiative protects basic human rights by challenging racial and economic injustice through a commitment to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment. For an in-depth exploration, consider the founder’s book, " Just Mercy."
Southern Poverty Law Center monitors the activities of domestic hate and extremist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, white nationalists, black separatists, and others.
American Civil Liberties Union is a leading civil rights organization founded in 1920 that stands up for all groups of people, including women, prisoners, differently abled, and LGBTQ people.
Planned Parenthood provides comprehensive and affordable reproductive healthcare services to women and men, as well as a passionate policy advocate.
National Organization for Women’s Rights (NOW) is the largest organization in the U.S. dedicated to women’s rights.
The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth.
Science and the environment
Union of Concerned Scientists develops and implements innovative, practical solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing problems.
350.org has climate activists in 189 countries working to unite a global movement using a bottom-up strategy.
Sierra Club was founded to promote stewardship of nature but is now fighting on the front lines of climate change.
Natural Resources Defense Council combines the power of more than 2 million members and activists with the expertise of 500 scientists, lawyers and policy advocates to ensure people’s rights to the air, the water and the wild.
Friends of the Earth is one of 75 members of Friends of the Earth International pushing for environmental reforms around the globe.
Earthworks protects communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.
Children’s Defense Fund’s mission is to ensure a healthy start for every child, including children in poverty, children of color and disabled children.
Teach for America’s goal is to strengthen education equity by recruiting and training people to become teachers in low-income communities.
United Way focuses on enabling opportunities to succeed, whether helping a child learn to read, ensuring access to quality medical care or supporting policies that provide training for in-demand jobs.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.)