Holiday times are when most Americans give back to charities — and not coincidentally, it’s also the time of year when nonprofits and charities send out the most solicitations for donations. There are more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the US, so finding the right fit for your giving might seem challenging. We have a finite amount of discretionary income, so you always must choose your donations wisely.
There’s so many facets of donating to charities… how much to donate, what cause to support, vetting how they donate, who is on the board, etc. You want to choose the charities with the causes you are most aligned with to truly help make the world move in the direction you want it to. Here are five insights that will help guide you towards making the most meaningful donations:
Reflect back on the last year for inspiration. Most charitable Americans donate once per year, so it’s best to reflect on the most current social causes that are most important to you.
Alan Ranzer, managing partner and co-founder at Impact 4 Good states “What were the highs and lows of your last year? If the high was a hiking vacation, for instance, maybe give to an organization that gets urban youth out into nature,” he says. Conversely, if you lost a loved one to illness or injury, a charity that helps fund research and awareness about that cause will likely be meaningful to you.
This advice might sound like semantical hair-splitting, but it’s an important distinction. In the aftermath of natural disasters or humanitarian crises, it’s natural to want to help, and charities in related fields often tie their solicitations to those headline-making events. But it’s important to pause and take a step back before pulling out your checkbook or entering your credit card number.
Don’t give in the moment if it means you’re going to make a rash and quick decision. Many Americans think “any donation is a good donation” but think of it this way: everyone has a finite amount of disposable income they can donate, so really plan out your donations and don’t make a knee-jerk decision on THE cause you can donate to.
If an unsolicited plea for funds comes from a charity with which you’re not familiar but their appeal moves you, see if any nonprofits to which you’re already donating are taking up that cause.
“In today’s world, we have many donors that want to make a difference in their own backyard, but they also want to have an impact globally,” says Una Osili, a well-respected professor at Indiana University’s School of Philanthropy in an interview with TIME Magazine.
Many people like the idea of donating to a local charity because they feel that their dollars can have more of an impact in a smaller organization. “Sometimes looking towards organizations that don’t have the marketing dollars to broaden their reach — those are great organizations to support,” says Ranzer. “Wherever you want to make a difference, that’s a good thing.”
One option is not to view the “global versus local” consideration as an either-or question, says Osili. “In some areas, especially the international arena, a smaller gift can go a long way in terms of bringing services to a poor community,” she points out.
Before you open your wallet, make sure the charity to which you plan to give will use your donation wisely. There are a number of organizations that research charities’ financial health and their commitment to transparency and accountability. Sites such as guidestar.org, charitynavigator.org, charitywatch.org and givewell.org are a good place to start if you’re trying.
to decide on a charity to support, because they deliver quantitative evaluations of doing good.
They do the legwork for you by combing through charities’ tax filings and governance documents so you don’t have to, and present their findings in a straightforward and unbiased manner.
You also can look to trusted institutions for guidance. Experts in charitable giving say it can be useful to see which charities your alma mater, house of worship or employer supports, since their philanthropic efforts are likely to have been undertaken only after rigorous vetting, and it’s likely that your personal value system is at least similarly aligned to that of organizations with which you’re affiliated.
Even if you don’t have a lot of money at the end of the year, there are ways you can help support a cause. Volunteering can be an option, especially for local charities that don’t have the kind of overhead for administrative functions and day-to-day operations as do their larger counterparts.
“If you have time to offer, check volunteermatch.org,” Ranzer says. “You can type in your city and a date, and they will give you organizations you can support that day.” In addition to geographic proximity, you can also search by cause areas like animals, education or health care to find a charity whose mission you want to support.
If you have professional skills — say, experience in accounting or graphic design — that know-how might be highly in demand. Volunteermatch.org is a good resource for finding a match, along with catchafire.org, a platform that matches people who want to do pro bono work with organizations that need assistance.