It’s a wide world of charity out there. Do you know how to navigate it?

Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle/AP/File
Volunteers unload a truck of relief supplies for people affected by Hurricane Harvey on Sept. 3, 2017, in Houston.
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Following all the Black Friday or Cyber Monday retail activity, today is widely promoted on social media as #GivingTuesday. It’s a helpful reminder of the call to give beyond one’s own family in the holiday season. But there’s actually no pressure to make your charitable donations on a particular day. The Monitor recently talked with experts for some tips on how to give, and one common refrain is that it pays to do some homework first. What needs are most urgent? What nonprofits are doing effective work? Below the expanded article you’ll find a sidebar with resources to help answer these questions. Taking a methodical approach can also help you avoid scams. Even if you don’t have much or any spare money, there are still ways to give. And Benjamin Soskis, an expert on philanthropy at the Urban Institute, says your engagement can be important as a democratizing force. He says the wealthiest donors are influential but don’t have all the answers, so there’s need for a “more grass-roots oriented, participatory approach” to charity.

Why We Wrote This

As ‘Giving Tuesday’ arrives, it’s a good time to think about charitable donations. Increasingly, average givers are focusing on the effectiveness of organizations they might support.

Giving can seem more complicated than ever: The world’s needs are vast, the number of nonprofits keeps rising, and some popular charities turn out to be havens of fraud or abuse. Then there’s technology, which has enabled a proliferation of “donate now” messages. Still, technology has given people new opportunities to make a donation. 

Q: Where should aspiring donors start, in thinking about how to make their charitable dollar do the most good?

People who are asking that question are on the right path, say many experts on nonprofits. To give involves the “heart,” and doing so wisely involves the “head.” Those tendencies figure into two seemingly opposite trends in recent years. First, research has documented that the most effective appeals for money are usually directed straight at people’s emotions, often by focusing attention on a particular person in need. But second, a rising breed of wealthy philanthropists has been pushing for a more data-driven, results-oriented model of giving. That attitude has been rippling beyond the ultra-wealthy.

Why We Wrote This

As ‘Giving Tuesday’ arrives, it’s a good time to think about charitable donations. Increasingly, average givers are focusing on the effectiveness of organizations they might support.

“Donors are asking more questions about effectiveness than ever,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. This mindset has spread from tech-industry moguls to average givers, she says.

The problem is that tracking and evaluating charities’ results is in many ways still in its infancy. “One of the things that frustrates a lot of donors is there’s just not a lot of great information you can find,” Ms. Palmer says, “to figure out who is really effective at making a difference.”

There’s no one template for potential donors. Give mostly locally, where one can observe the effects directly? Give globally, where each dollar may go further? Answers to such questions will vary. But it’s taking a big step just to think them through.


Giving USA

Karen Norris/Staff

Q: How can the choices for giving be narrowed down?

A common approach is to start by asking which causes you believe are most important to support, and then do research to find specific organizations you trust to be effective and whose methods you’re comfortable with. Online tools can help (see sidebar below). But some of the best information may come from a charitable group’s own website, Palmer and others say. And if that site lacks useful information, including about results, that can be a red flag.

Pro tip: Think about results holistically, rather than accepting metrics of “impact” at face value. For example, the number of shoes given to children doesn’t necessarily equate to lives transformed or a community improved.

Michael Matheson Miller, who helped create a documentary on the global antipoverty industry, urges some reframing of mind-sets about charity. “We tend to treat poor people like objects – objects of our pity ... of our charity ... of our compassion. And I think this comes from a good heart. We see a problem, and we want to help,” Mr. Miller says. While supporting disaster relief is important, the deeper need, he says, is to see people as “the protagonists of their own story of development.”

Traditionally, “getting out of poverty has to do with giving people access to institutions of justice and enabling them to create prosperity in their families, communities, and their economies,” says Miller, who works at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Q: What’s the best way to help financially after a natural disaster?

Here are some general guidelines from experts: Give money, not supplies. Give to reputable organizations experienced in this work. (Such groups may be national or local; the Charity Navigator website often lists organizations that are responding to a specific event such as hurricane Harvey.) And spread gifts out over time. Recovery from a disaster can take years, yet most donations come in the first few weeks, when the event is in public thought.

Q: How can people avoid being scammed?

“Donor beware” is a good motto, and it’s generally best to avoid donating money on the fly. Do some research on groups before giving. Also, be wary of unsolicited phone calls or emails from unfamiliar charities. Ditto if people say donations need to be in cash, by gift card, or by wiring money.

When one does give, rather than sharing a credit-card number over the phone or clicking a link in a possibly fraudulent email, use a browser to type in the charity’s website address and make a donation there. Or mail a check. 

Q: Are there ways to give even when money is tight?

Of course! One way is to volunteer for a group. Or raise awareness about a cause by sharing on social media. And one’s own paid work or consumer activity can be done with an eye toward having a positive effect on the world.

Also, technology can turn action into money. One example is the smartphone app “Charity Miles.” It tracks one’s exercise like running, walking, or biking, and for each mile, participating companies will donate to a charity of one’s choice. Another example is “Donate a Photo,” run by Johnson & Johnson, which lets a user give a dollar to charity for each photo he or she posts through the app.

Remember that even a modest amount of money makes a difference to the recipient organization. Sometimes one’s employer will match the gift, thus multiplying it, notes Palmer of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Joining a “giving circle” is a way for people to pool resources and have a bigger effect than they could separately. Not only may such efforts help specific charities, but they may also promote a wider culture of giving. And that’s an important issue, since the share of Americans donating to charity has fallen in recent years, says Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute in Washington.

Q: Is charity becoming more democratized, thanks to the internet or other forces?

Yes and no, says Mr. Soskis. As the preceding question and answer note, the avenues for giving are growing. “A lot of people are thinking now more creatively about how to expand the notion of who gets to count as a philanthropist,” and many charitable groups are learning to listen to a wider array of voices, he says. “One of the major themes of philanthropy in the last decade has been the inadequacy of the technocratic approach, and the need to at least combine it with a more grass-roots oriented, participatory approach as well.”

The amount of information available to average donors online is also rising.

At the same time, the trend in recent years is that a higher percentage of charitable donations is flowing from a wealthy few, the opposite of democratization. One result, say experts including Palmer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy, is that some institutions such as universities are doing well at attracting money, while less-elite nonprofits such as those in social services may be struggling.

Empowering more people is an important goal, Soskis says, in charitable giving just as in other arenas of society like voting or employment. “Having a wide base of people engaging in society, expressing themselves, expressing their preferences, makes for a healthier society,” he says.

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Other resources to consult

The first three groups listed here can be good starting places for general information on the finances and transparency of individual charities:

Charity Navigator (

GuideStar (

CharityWatch (

UniversalGiving ( The organization offers a vetting system for nonprofits and projects, as described in founder Pamela Hawley’s latest column for the Monitor, in the Nov. 12 issue, page 40.

BBB Wise Giving Alliance ( This offers a wealth of information on specific charities, plus general pointers.

GreatNonprofits ( It’s like a Yelp for charities, though not as chock-full of useful reviews yet. It has the ability to filter for comments from clients, donors, etc.

GiveWell ( This group does in-depth vetting of selected charities, weighing their effectiveness. The result is an annual list of a few dozen recommended charities. Users can also read about GiveWell’s “effective altruism” philosophy, which, while not for everyone, is thought-provoking.

Websites of specific charities: After looking at overview websites like the ones listed here, don’t forget the added step of reading how a nonprofit describes its own activities.

Growfund ( This is an easy way (no minimum donation) to start a “donor-advised fund,” in which one can manage tax-deductible giving over time.

Consumer Reports 
( The venerable consumer guide offers assessments of some top charities in an online report.

Perception Gaps ( The Monitor’s podcast includes an episode on giving (Part 7 in the series). Have a listen to this and the other episodes!

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