How to pick a charity

It’s easily the most common question I get. Here’s 5 steps to pick a charity, for donating time or money, and feel good about your selection(s).

Step 1 – Figure out what pisses you off. Or where you have a personal connection.

There are literally millions of charities in the U.S. (1.6 Million a year ago).  Think long and hard about what you think is wrong in the world. Do you hate that there are hungry children? Does animal cruelty make you sick? Maybe you feel everyone should have equal access to the arts? Have you or a friend or family member suffered from a disease or domestic violence?  Try to find something that you think is unfair and/or affects you personally.  Come up with 3 issues.

Step 2 – Reinforce Step 1.

Think about it, do some research – figure what is causing these issues. Warning – the answer may be easy or quite complex. You’ll naturally begin to lean towards one of your three issues – keep them all for now.

Step 3 – Make a list of who is doing something about it.

A simple Google search of your issue with the word ‘nonprofit’ or ‘charity’ will bring up several organizations. Make sure your list is longer than the ‘big known’ charities. Search in your city and put some small/local organizations down, as well as some national or even international ones – 6-8 for each issue.

Step 4 – Decide if you’re going to support several charities in small amounts or 1 or 2 with larger donations.

Many  just getting started will send several small financial donations to a large group of charities. This way they can ‘try them out’. You’ll learn how the organization interacts with its supporters, more about their priorities and more about what your donations do – you can narrow the list later after surveying what you’ve learned. Others would rather make a larger gift and have a larger impact on 1 or 2 select charities. There’s no cure for this philanthropic dilemma – but if you’re relatively new to this, I’d suggest small gifts to 6-8 charities.  Same with volunteering. You likely only have time for one or two. Hop on their website or give them a call – but first, make sure you know how much time you’re willing to offer and if you have a specific talent you want to lend.

Step 5 – Narrow your list

Today most homework is done on the web. Browse the organization’s website, read their last annual report, try to understand exactly what role they (and in turn, you) are playing in addressing the issue(s) you were so fired up about in Step 1.  Caution – don’t be blown away by snazzy websites – you’re looking for REAL IMPACT.  Are they making progress in the issue? Do you like/agree with the way they are addressing it? It’s ok to take a look at watch-dog groups like Charity Navigator or the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance BUT take their ratings with a grain of salt – don’t get caught up in the overhead fear factor (see my previous post).  These watch-dog groups also only rate the larger organizations – there are often small organizations making a tremendous impact that would never show up on these sites.

You’re done – make your donation(s) or start volunteering

It’s easy to get caught up in ‘analysis paralysis’ (having so much information that you never make a decision). For now, make your gift, either online or send a check via mail. And/or commit to a volunteering opportunity and mark your calendar.

Now, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.  Don’t get comfortable – making the gift is only one small part of being a ‘good giver’. Stay tuned for more…

6 thoughts on “How to pick a charity

  1. What a great suggestion for individuals who are interested in making a difference! I love how you have emphasized the importance of the person’s passion and assessing the organizations’ respective impact.

    If I may, one additional suggestion: Ask people that you know about the issue and the organizations involved. Conversations about philanthropic involvement are so interesting and insightful! You may learn about an organization that is worth considering for a donation.

    Keep up the great work, Nathan! Best, Jessica

  2. Thanks Jessica – you make a great point! Getting the ‘word on the street’ or 3rd party recommendations can be quite valuable in the discernment process. Thanks for the insight!

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