Cash for a Cause: How to Choose a Charity

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You have a cause you’re really passionate about, you have some spare cash, and you have a few organisations in mind. But before you donate, ask yourself the following questions…

What does the charity really do?

Do they provide services for specific groups of people? Do they award grants for research? Do they lobby governmental organisations on behalf of the cause? Maybe they do all three, and more – like big health charities, the American Cancer Society and the British Heart Foundation; just know what it is before you give them your money, so you’re not disappointed that they’re not providing support for cancer survivors when actually what they do is support cancer research.

BHF CPR ad with Vinnie Jones: part of the BHF’s Patient Care objectives, one of six areas they work in.

 

Does what they do really work?

Just because something is “for charity,” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (Susan covered this admirably before). The charity may have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that what they do is useful or the best way to approach the issue they’re concerned with. For example, there is an Irish charity called Bóthar (it means “road” in Irish, and is also a pun on “bó,” meaning “cow'”) who fundraise to give farm animals to families living in poverty  – the animals provide food and extra income, thus enhancing the health, food security, and prospects of the families who receive them. However, the animals are often sent from Ireland to where they’re needed – not particularly environmentally friendly, or sustainable, and it doesn’t support the local economy. Other organisations who have similar schemes, such as World Vision, make a point of buying the animals that they give locally, thus ensuring they’re suitable for the local environment as well. Though they don’t solicit public donations, one of the reasons I admire the Gates Foundation is that they insist on value for money and rigorous evidence for the effectiveness of the projects they support, hence their support of the GAVIAlliance and vaccines. If the charity works directly with service users, how are those service users treated? Are their needs listened to? Some people abhor the thought of homelessness charities providing free accommodation for people who drink and use drugs, but often doing that is the best way to begin to help them to move away from addiction and towards independent living.

For larger organisations, I also want to know that they’re working towards the root causes of the problems they tackle: like Oxfam’s GROW campaign. Also, are they local, independent, or part of an international group, and how does this restrict or enhance the work they do? Bottom line: charities should have evidence to support their work and their approach, and be willing to respond to the changing needs of the people they support.

 

Are they properly run?

Check if your charity is registered as such. In the U.S., this usually means they are a 501(c) organisation; in Ireland, they should have a charity number e.g.: CHY 12345; in the U.K., a charity number (issued separately for Northern Ireland and Scotland) or a HMRC charity number. In the U.K. they, should also be registered for GiftAid, which enables them to claim the tax back on almost any donation, no matter how small, by a U.K. taxpayer. This makes it more likely that they’re run according to the law and they’re making the very most of your money. My one exception to this would be for local charities who have been set up very recently – but they should be actively pursuing the proper registration. The U.K. has other exceptions for very small charities and some voluntary organisations, detailed here.

Secondly, you may think it’s great that all the staff of your favourite charity are volunteers. More money to spend on the cause, right? Beware: non-profit work is work; the people who do it for a living are professionals; they deserve to be paid for their expertise. I’m not suggesting that everyone at a non-profit should be on Nancy Brinker’s salary, and absolutely many charities rely on their volunteers to get everything done – board members in Ireland are often unpaid – but I am saying that when you pay for amateurs, you most often get amateurs.

For example, I can absolutely get behind the work of Medicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders in the U.S.) and would love to support their Irish branch – but I won’t, because they recently advertised for volunteers to process their donations and invoices. Is that volunteer aware of the intricacies of Irish tax law as it applies to charities, and the Data Protection Acts? My guess is no. I want a professional managing my money, so I won’t give to MSF Ireland while that’s the work they expect of their volunteers.

 

Do they have a particular religious ethos, and what effect does this have on their work?

Some organisations are very upfront about this e.g. Christian Aid and Trócaire, the latter’s major fundraising drive is a collection box during Lent. Some are not. Some Christian organisations, for example, fundraise for maternal and infant health care (fistula repair, maternity clinics, etc.), but won’t fund full-spectrum reproductive health care like contraception and abortion despite the well-known unmet need for these services in developing countries (in the U.S., USAID and its grantees are restricted in terms of abortion care, though less so than previously). You may support a charity’s particular ethos; you may think it doesn’t matter in the context of their work; or you may weigh up what they do in other areas and decide they’re still worth supporting despite that, but you should know about it.

Where do they get their funding from?

Many non-profits, especially those involved in overseas aid, get a substantial portion of their income from governments (in Ireland, the governmental body that does this is called Ireland Aid; in the U.S., USAID. How inventive). Some others get all their funding through public fundraising. Given the choice between two similar organisations, you may choose to support one which relies entirely on public fundraising, or you may feel that the sometimes stricter terms imposed on charities by acceptance of government funding is a good thing.

 

How much do they spend, and what do they spend it on?

This information should be in a charity’s annual report, and easy to find on their website. Do look carefully at this, but don’t automatically run if you see what you think is a high figure for fundraising. That old adage “You have to spend money to make money” absolutely applies to charities. They have to spend on marketing and fundraising to (a) keep their existing donors giving and (b) attract more new donors. If you see an article saying they’ve spent $20,000 on an ad campaign, you might think that’s a huge amount: but over five years they may make five times that in donations from people who responded to that campaign. Put that $20,000 in the context of their other spending, and their funding, it might not be such a crazy figure.

A few charities, like charity:water and the Against Malaria Foundation, are able to fund their overheads (staff costs, rent, marketing) through private trustees and donors, and thus are able to promise that all of your money goes directly to the cause. This is great, but most charities aren’t able to do this: don’t hold it against them. As a very rough guideline, though, I’d look more closely at a charity that spends more than 10-15% of their income on items unrelated to their cause.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s enough to get you asking questions and making sure your chosen causes are doing the right thing with your money. Keep an eye out for another post on what you can expect from a charity once you donate to them. Also, I’m writing from an Irish perspective so if I miss anything pertinent that’s specific to the US/UK/Canada/etc., please chime in with other resources and information in the comments!

You can also look at the following sites for independent reviews and donor reactions to charities, though none of them are foolproof:

UK: the Charity Commission; Canada: Charity IntelligenceUSA: givewell.orgcharitynavigator.orggreatnonprofits.org


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QoBCash for a Cause: How to Choose a Charity

23 Comments on “Cash for a Cause: How to Choose a Charity”

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  1. Profile photo of Ella
    Ella

    Great article, and having worked a great deal in the non-profit and fund-raising sectors, I definitely concur.

    One tip that I’d add, is to give locally when you can, especially if you are donating a lower amount of money. The less bureaucracy that a charitable organisation has to support, the more money goes directly to the cause rather than e.g. generating vast amounts of junk mail asking you for more money.

  2. Profile photo of Kathy
    Kathy

    In the US, the go-to site is charitynavigator: http://www.charitynavigator.org/ . They are really good at showing you quickly which charities are spending almost as much on promoting themselves as those that have all the money go to the charity of choice.

    If you want to donate, but don’t have any money, there’s also the web sites associated with the rainforest site: http://www.therainforestsite.com/ A click a day will give rainforest footage, breast cancer screenings, food for animals, etc. It’s all paid for by the advertisers. If you have to buy presents, their shops are pretty cool too with lots of fair trade items.

    My husband donates through work to Unicef (bleh), so I donate an identical amount to World Land Trust-US (http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=11733) to buy rainforest. Last year I “bought” 7 acres, which I have no desire whatsoever to visit. :-)

  3. Profile photo of Texpat Starling
    Texpat Starling

    Very timely article. We’ve recently had our financial situation get dramatically better and I’ve been looking at donating more. Thanks for the tips.

  4. Profile photo of freckle [M]
    freckle [M]

    Oh Vinnie, never change.

    The only charity I support is for guidance dogs. I looked them up, read the FAQs and discovered that they would sell your name and stuff to ‘similar’ charities, if you didn’t write them a letter to bugger off. I wrote the letter, asked for assurance, got it and have been happy helping ever since. Well ..until they’ll pop into the news because the big chiefs have been rewarding themselves, which is one of my biggest fears/frustrations when it comes to charities. But for now I’m the proud adoption parent of puppy Wiske, who is trying her hardest to learn to help a blind person one day.

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

      Good for you!

      Regulations on charities sharing information differs country-to-country: in Ireland the Data Protection laws are quite strict and many charities say upfront that they’ll never pass your information on as all the notifications and opt-outs aren’t worth the hassle to them.

      1. Profile photo of freckle [M]
        freckle [M]

        Oh, that sounds divine. The Netherlands are a bit torn over it: some pull it into Privacy is Everything while others like to point out that charities are still companies and need to get their money from something (uh).

         

  5. Profile photo of Helga Might
    Helga Might

    Great article! One thing I have learned as I have struggled to put our family on a strict budget is just how important giving to charity is. Using the budget program I’ve subscribed to charity comes second only to money that goes into savings and emergency fund. It is empowering to feel like I’m helping, even if the amount is tiny. And I really believe that what you give out you get back.

    I know most of the article focused on charities to help people, we also give to charity that support the care and well being of animals. Some charities will actually let you support one animal’s care and upkeep while it is in a shelter or rescue, this really lets a person make a specific difference.

    Also I just want to say that taking a bag of pet food, or your old towels or some paper products to your local animal shelter/ pet rescue is also giving to charity and helping to directly care for a being who’s life and existence is solely dependent on others.

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

       It is empowering to feel like I’m helping, even if the amount is tiny. And I really believe that what you give out you get back.

      Absolutely, amen, especially to the first part.

      And thanks for the tips specific to animal-related charities – I tried to keep it as general as possible in the article but the examples I had at the top of my head were all people-focused!

  6. Profile photo of Juniper
    Juniper

    Thank you for this, QoB. We put a lot of time and thought into which charities we donate to, especially as we don’t have a huge amount to give. UNICEF is one that I like to donate to because they’re one of the few charities doing work in the DRC. And, seriously, I have to credit Glamour (UK) for my first donation to Marie Stopes.

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

      For all their faults, women’s magazines were a big part of my education in reproductive rights as a teenager. Big up to Glamour and Marie Claire:)

  7. Profile photo of
    Kortney Thoma

    Thank you so much for this, QoB! I recently fell into a job that actually pays me enough to donate to charities and I’ve been mulling this over for a while now. Your tips are excellent and have really given me a few more things to think about! Cheers!

  8. Profile photo of Susan
    Susan

    I give to Kiva.org when I can, and the best thing about that (okay, not the best, but a good thing) is that when it gets paid back, I get to relend it, even if I don’t currently have any spare money.

  9. Profile photo of Leezaleigh
    Leezaleigh

    I’m a little poor being in grad school, so I’ve been trying to donate time (even though I’m short on that too..)  I volunteer at the local women’s shelter.  I decided to work at this particular charity because I grew up in a home with domestic violence so it feels nice being able to give back to an organization that’s really close to my heart.  It helps that the organization also doesn’t discriminate for sexual orientation, race, or religion, and they also don’t allow religious zealots to take over activities (I’m an atheist, so I like it that religion isn’t being shoved down anyone’s throats).

    My family LOVES donating to the heifer project (heifer.org), which provides families with a means to earn a living through buying them different animals to raise.  I think this year they bought someone some honey bees & a goat.  It goes along the lines of “if you give a man fish, he’ll eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime” type of train of thought.

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

      That’s so great that you can volunteer – so many organisations wouldn’t be able to function without their volunteers.

      The Heifer Project sounds similar to what I mentioned Bóthar and World Vision do – and it seems like they emphasise local breeds as well.

  10. Profile photo of A.Lynn
    A.Lynn

    As a nonprofit professional I absolutely agree with all of this. We love passionate, informed, enthusiastic donors!

    I also encourage people (who are able to) to start a relationship volunteering with a nonprofit or two that they feel most passionate about. That really gives you a nice picture of how things are run and what work they do so that you are confident about any other gift you decide to give, like a donation–plus the gift of time is so valuable to us as well! If you want to help execute the mission of the nonprofit, there are usually opportunities in direct service. If that’s not something you’re comfortable with, most nonprofits can use your “behind the scenes” talents too! All too often nonprofits are super under staffed, overworked, and underpaid so we will find something you can help with :)

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

      Yay, so glad that another pro agrees:)

      I know a few nonprofits who have regular volunteers who come in just to address and stuff envelopes – and it’s so helpful, it frees up a lot of time for the full-time staff. I think there is a certain level, though, that a volunteer can’t get past: I touched on this in the article. For some organisations, if a volunteer isn’t comfortable with direct service and doesn’t want to stuff envelopes or similar, there may not be anything for them to do on a regular basis. It can very much depend on the organisation.

  11. Profile photo of Cesy
    Cesy

    At this stage of my life, I try and give my time rather than my money, as I have a bit of time but no money! But all these things are incredibly good points.

    I work in non-profit, we’re registered with the appropriate regulatory bodies, we have a Constitution and Board of Trustees that ensure we stick to what we’re supposed to do, and we have to report every little thing to our funders (in our situation the vast majority of our funding comes from the Government). It’s hard but entirely necessary work to do all that, but as we’re a community legal organisation, we’re acutely aware of how important it is!

  12. Profile photo of [E] pileofmonkeys
    [E] pileofmonkeys

    Whenever I have money in the donation budget, it usually goes to Donors Choose. Teachers put together proposals for classroom supplies or projects, and then donors can choose projects based on type of project (literacy, science, arts, etc.) or state, urgency, level of poverty, or any number of other criteria. The teacher sends you thank-you notes, you usually get a classroom picture of them using whatever the project funded, and it’s really rewarding. Although the number of projects that are simply to outfit a class with paper and pencils and folders and basic supplies is really sad. The fact that teachers have to rely on donors or their own wallets for basic classroom needs is beyond depressing.

  13. Profile photo of Monica
    Monica

    I would love to donate to more charities than I actually do, but I currently can’t afford it. I try to give to Kiva.org when I can, and I have a monthly donation that goes to The Trevor Project.

    I’m one of those people who gets mail from charities and then feels guilty that I can’t donate. I’ve also been thinking about the St. Joseph Indian School, lately.

    1. Profile photo of QoB
      QoB

      That’s great – loads of people don’t or can’t do even that much. Regular donations are especially helpful.

      Don’t worry too much about the mail that you can’t respond to – charities know that the vast majority (98-99%) of people won’t respond to it and that’s built in to the cost. If a particular story or cause does touch you, you can always hang on to the letter and if you find yourself with a bit of extra cash sometime, consider donating then.

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