Thursday, April 10, 2008

#204 - Finding Your Perfect Match

Where the Smart Money Goes When It Comes To Giving

Here is the second tip in a series of installments related to The Giving Challenge that's happening here at the House of Green. It's not too late to sign up, just leave a comment with your name and site if you want to join!

Want to give a little green for good? That's fan-doodley-tastic! But before you whip out that checkbook and start writing down numbers, do a little number reading. Make sure that charity you're about to bestow your gift upon is really worthy of your funds.

Well that sounds harsh, doesn't it? Giving is supposed to be about community, sharing, warm fuzzies and all that mushy stuff. It's something we do because, in our heart, we know it is right. We like the feeling we get when we give to a worthy cause. Sometimes a vivid description of starving children is told... sometimes a picture of a dying bird caught in an oil slick. How can you not just fork your wallet over to the all those nice people who are trying to fight the injustices of the world?

Let's start with:

1. Just because they're nice doesn't mean they're smart.
2. And it also doesn't mean they're entirely altruistic.

The directors of the organization may be so messed up that they blew all their donations on legal fees and new computers when it should have been spent on food for the starving kids. Or maybe they spent most of the donations on their own inflated, executive-style salaries and then used the ten dollars leftover to buy a bottle of Palmolive. The bottom line is, if you want to get the most bang for your buck out of your charitable donations, you need to do a little homework.

You might want to make your first stop on this fact-checking tour be the Network for Good website. It is a wealth of information regarding thousands upon thousands of charities. It is very, very user-friendly. You can find a charity simply by typing in a couple of keywords and selecting whether you want to donate or volunteer (or both). If you want, you can even narrow your search by city and state.

For instance, I typed in "Environment", selected both 'donate' and 'volunteer', then narrowed my search to Virginia. I was offered 984 possibilities for donations and 56 opportunities for volunteering. WOW! But it gets even better. If I click on any of these charities, I'm taken to a page where I can either make a donation or learn more about the charity in question. By clicking on the View Full Report, I'm able to learn a great deal about the organization.

Once I open the report, I am able to see their Missions, Programs, Government Codes, Goals and Results, as well as their most recent published financial data. Now, you can learn a lot about their ideals and such in the former areas, but the latter part? Them thar numbers? Well, they just don't lie. You can see exactly how much money they bring in and how it is spent. You want to see expenses that show a higher proportion of Program Services to Administration and Other. In fact, to be considered a successful charity, the ratio should be at least 4:1. The only time this should be lower is during the first few years of startup, which is when most funds are spent on building the infrastructure of the organization.

If you want to dig even deeper into a particular charity's finances, you can also check out their IRS form 990, filed annually by all registered US charities and available online at For you fellow Mathletes and Tax Nerds, this is where you'll find the really juicy stuff, like the salaries of the highest paid employees and the independent contractors they hire for professional services. Good stuff.

So I guess what I'm saying is that finding a good charity is like finding a good husband. Sure, you may first be attracted by a big sob story or just a general feeling of pity. But before you take that stroll down the aisle, a smart woman will run a credit check on him to make sure he knows his debits and credits from his franks and beans.


gregra&gar said...

Paying someone to enact your best wishes is the lazy lip service of the charitable and the biggest scam in a world of scams. Money cannot help people with whom the donors fear to personally associate. Organized charities have the same inherent failures as organized religion.

Burbanmom said...

Mr. G,

I totally disagree with your comment, but I'm so GLAD YOU'RE BACK! Was starting to get worried about you -- afraid the hummingbirds just flew you away or something! :-)

Joyce said...

Thanks for the information. I think it's very wise to check them out before you give.

arduous said...

I don't have any fear to associate with any of the organizations I give money to.

The organization that gets the bulk of my money is an organization that I actually volunteer with called "Reading to Kids." It's a very simple mission, but I think they do great work, and I see the results of their work every month.

I also give regularly to Planned Parenthood, which is an organization I support entirely. I have used their services when I didn't have adequate health insurance, so I know first hand the good work they do.

Other organizations I've supported include Donor's Choose, in which I know exactly what the teacher's project is, Goods 4 Girls, which is a very simple organization but I think does accomplish important work, and my uncle's NGO in India. I've spent time there and they do incredibly important work ensuring the water supply of villages in the drylands.

I admit, I personally would rather give my money to smaller charities rather than a charity like UNICEF or Red Cross. This is mainly because I think a lot of the time any money you send to Red Cross is completely negated by the cost of adding you to their mailing lists, donor lists, etc, etc. (The reason I support Planned Parenthood in the way I do is because regular streams of money are more effective for charities. This way Planned Parenthood can expect a stable stream of money from me.)

But it's kind of extreme to suggest that giving money to charity is "paying lazy lip service." I think the more people give, the more likely they are to get involved in those charities. That's a good thing.

Leslie said...

You do so doggone much research for your posts!
OK. Do do you find the time?
Or were you fibbing about being 'sick', and you were really just doing blog research? Hmmm?

organicneedle said...

gregra&gar....I can totally see how there can be flaws in charitable organizations because they are run by humans...and we are flawed. I think that is why Erin has this post. Research. I completely disagree with the idea that giving money to groups you care about is just paying lip service. In fact, without us money givers most of the greatest organizations that are fighting AIDS, feeding children, digging wells, providing vaccinations, curing diseases etc. etc., couldn't function. Sometimes money IS the support organizations need. For example, I am not qualified to do medical research but I can offer money to support those who do the studies and the families who will be touched by their work.

Chile said...

As someone who has been on the inside of a number of non-profits, your advice to check them out is very well-founded. If you're interested in donating to an organization that is local or at least has a local branch, a good way to check them out is to do volunteer work with them.

Going Crunchy said...

Oh darn, I'm sorry. Also add in four hours of volunteer work at a homeless shelter and three hours on a charity project at a local church if you can count that.