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Making the Most of Your Charitable Donations

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The Samaria Baskets Group

One of the entrepreneurs that the Village Enterprise Fund supports is the Samaria Baskets Group. The organization says that the group "developed a fireless cooker into which a pre-heated cooking pot is placed. This insulated basket retains heat and allows the dish to cook to completion. The savings in cooking fuel are substantial. The cooker also keeps food warm for several hours to accommodate late-arriving family members."

The season of giving is upon us, and it isn't just our friends and family we need to worry about. Charities and nonprofits step it up around the holiday season, and requests for year-end donations are nearly as ubiquitous as sale ads. From the bell-ringer outside Wal-Mart, to the emails filling up your inbox, to the nonprofit where your brother, your niece, or your best friend works, the options to donate seem endless. And they are.

So which one to pick? It’s easy to go with the first one to catch your eye or stick with the one you’ve always given to. But as the world of philanthropy changes, there are more and more opportunities to think critically about giving. Instead of waiting for organizations to come to us, we can go out and find the one that would put our money to the best use.

I went on my own personal journey to find my organization, the one that I thought would do the most with the money I would give them. It wasn't one I had worked with before—it wasn't even one I had heard of before—but I ultimately decided it was the best one for me. I hope my example can help you make a similar discovery.

To make my choice, I picked criteria based on three aspects of the organization: its area of focus, the specific work it does, and the details of its structure. The criteria you use will depend on your own values.

Red-number-1.jpgFocus: First, determine what societal issue concerns you the most. Is it health care, homeless advocacy, media reform, community agriculture? Don’t let yourself think that something you’ve always supported will be the best use of your donation. There might be another cause out there you haven’t considered that would create more change with your gift. Consider organizations that focus on the sources of the problems you care about, rather than their symptoms.

I decided on economic empowerment as my focus, something I’ve studied and worked on for a long time.

Once you have your area in mind, check out CharityNavigator.org or GuideStar.org, sites that allow you to search by keyword, to find out more about your options. GuideStar gives an overview of programs offered, while Charity Navigator focuses on financial analysis.

Red-number-2.jpgWork: Second, think about what kind of programs you want your ideal organization to offer. What’s the best way to tackle the issue you’re concerned about? Sort through your options to see what ideas and programs are available.

I decided to look for programs providing start-up capital and small business training to poor communities in Africa.

Deciding which programs are most effective isn’t easy. Most online sites (or even off-line resources) do not offer evaluations of programs, so it’s up to you to form a sense of what programs are most valuable. GiveWell.net offers evaluations of some programs, as well as an excellent “Giving 101” overview, so that is a good place to start.

Red-number-3.jpgStructure: Finally, whittle further by looking at the individual organizations themselves. Figure out what type of organization you want to support. It’s easiest to pick out a few things that are very important for you to see in an organization, like longevity, a commitment to grassroots organizing, or something as simple as a diverse staff.

One thing that helped me narrow down my list was thinking about size. I didn’t want to support a big organization because I felt that my resources could go further in a smaller organization. Others might like larger organizations because they offer a wider range of services and are more established.

I decided to pick a small- to medium-sized organization with a history of transparency and accountability. (If you are interested in transparency and accountability, GiveWell evaluates charities based on those criteria. Charities recently have come under high scrutiny and these two factors are becoming more important.)

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With all these criteria in mind, you should be able to weed out the remaining and find the group for you. Phew! It’s a process, but rewarding at the end—you feel a closer tie to the work you’re supporting.

I chose the Village Enterprise Fund, a mid-sized organization providing small grants and business training to communities in Eastern Africa. I signed up for their newsletter, donated online, and plan to be as involved in the organization as possible.

After you find yours, don’t limit your involvement to a single gift, but continue to follow your organization as it progresses. Donate time and money when you can; get to know the larger, structural issues that affect its work, like the bureaucracies the Village Enterprise Fund has to work through to distribute aid to entrepreneurs.

As your organization changes, you will grow and learn with it. Your commitment will open your eyes to new experiences and new insights, but it will also give the organization another partner in its efforts. Together, you can discover the best way to create the change you both think is most needed. 


Jeff RaderstrongJeff Raderstrong wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jeff is a freelance writer and blogger at ChangeCharity, where he discusses how individuals can get the most out of their charitable contributions.

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