What Should I Look For In A Charity?: A #GivingTuesday Guide

Millions of people participate in #BlackFriday and #CyberMonday, but what about #GivingTuesday? After all the damage you’ve done to your credit card in the name of buying stuff, don’t you want to make it feel better about itself and do something good for the world? Enter Giving Tuesday (TODAY!), a movement to celebrate generosity and to give. But who do you give to? How do you know if a charity is legit? Only 35% of gifts are made after doing research on the organization—if you’re going to trust an organization with your money, don’t you want to know more about them? Well, as someone who is literally a professional giver, I thought I would share some insights about what to look for.

I have been working in philanthropy for going on two years, and I recently completed a Giving 2.0 MOOC taught by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen of Stanford University. If you have a chance to take this (free, online) course, I highly recommend doing so—it’s a great introduction to grantmaking, and you could qualify your favorite nonprofit for an actual grant up to $10,000!

Here are some things to think about in your giving:


What is your passion?

This is the first question you should ask yourself —what is the change you want to see, how do you want to make this change, and what organizations are working in the space? There is no right answer to this question. To give an example, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation wants to transform the lives of children living in urban poverty, which they believe can be accomplished by ensuring access to quality education, encouraging healthy behaviors, and fostering stable families with microfinance. Do you want to focus on your country or internationally? Your money can go further and be more essential abroad (for $120, you can give someone a goat), but there is also greater risk of corruption (and plenty of need domestically). Do you want to give to a palliative nonprofit that serves immediate need or a systems-changing nonprofit that fixes the problem? Both are necessary, it’s a matter of what you are passionate about.


What should you give?

MONEY IS NOT THE ONLY THING YOU CAN GIVE. In the MOOC, Dr. Arrillaga-Andreessen categorizes giving into material resources, time, and network. What do you have to offer a nonprofit, and what do they need? For example, I have a connection at a magazine that runs public service announcements. I was working on a marketing project with Girlstart, so I connected them to the magazine, which was able to run free PSA ads for their organization.

If you do choose to give money, again, there is no right answer. But think about how possible even 1% of your salary would be, or if you had to donate the same amount that you spent on shoes (yes, I originally used this Carrie Bradshaw strategy). In this same vein, you will sometimes get requests outside of what you have determined your passion to be (for example, you care about the environment and your friend is doing the MS150). You may want to set aside a budget for that to ensure that you have a strong focus area and you don’t feel the need to accept every random request.


What should I look for in a charity?

Now we get to the fun part. I am assuming that, like me, most of you are not contributing major gifts, and so many of the typical things to look for are irrelevant—for example, where, specifically, your money specifically is going. However, think of your donation as an investment in the organization—they should be able to share returns! Here are some starting questions to consider:

What are their major needs?  This could uncover an opportunity for you to donate skills instead of money (for example, if they need someone to run their Twitter), or it could make you reconsider a contribution (I decided against donating to an organization once I discovered they were not looking to expand the program I believed in).

How do they measure success?  Measurable evaluation and realistic goals are essential to a nonprofit’s success. For example, a nonprofit that distributes food to the community and wants to build an education center in Kenya on a $30,000 budget does not have realistic goals or a clear focus (this is an actual request I have received). The nonprofit must be able to clearly and empirically demonstrate progress towards their goals: “We will make the world a better place” does not cut it, “85% of participants will report a greater interest in science” does.

Are you getting the best bang for your buck?  For example, if you want to fund an early childhood literacy program, what is their cost per student? What is the cost for similar programs, and what is the difference in services?

Who are their partners?  The stamp of approval from major funders (like MSDF or Gates Foundation) shows that they already meet rigorous guidelines. In addition, working together with other nonprofits and sharing their work shows dedication to a cause (this is called collective impact and is super hot right now). For example, E3 Alliance convenes local universities, community colleges, and college support programs to collectively solve problems and dismantle obstacles.

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Is the nonprofit healthy?  This may require a bit more work. Look up their financials or 990 on Guidestar.org (guide on how to read a 990 here). Are they losing money, are their funding sources diverse, does anything look out of place? Look them up on give.org (run by the BBB) or Charity Navigator (though keep in mind overhead is not bad!).

What is the return on your investment?  That’s right, it’s not a donation, it’s an investment. What are you or society getting in return? I was a volunteer tutor with two organizations: One encouraged leadership to prepare students for college and students made the program a priority, while the other coddled students and held their hand through college, and I had students no-show several times. I left the second one because I wasn’t seeing a return on the time I spent there. If you donate money, do you get an automatic email back, or a signed letter from a student thanking you for the college sweatshirt your donation bought? Good nonprofits keep you engaged so the experience is more fulfilling for all parties involved.


Most of this information should be available on a nonprofit’s website or through the websites mentioned above. Again, please consider checking out the Giving 2.0 course or www.laaf.org, which has lots of resources on giving. I hope that you all participate in #GivingTuesday today and find a cause to become a part of your life!

Who did your #GivingTuesday gift go to? Do you have other questions on giving? Tweet us @litdarling and @theduckiest or comment to let us know!


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