Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Trick for Donating More Skillfully

The middle of a recession may seem an inappropriate time to discuss charitable donations, but non-profits really need help at times like these. And now, more than ever, it's essential to try to get the best bang-for-buck with any funds we do manage to scrape together for good causes.

Many people vet non-profits by researching them on Charity Navigator. You can learn, for example, how efficiently donations are applied - i.e. what percentage of your contribution serves the actual cause, rather than the organization's salary, infrastructure, and marketing.

That's good, but not it's not good enough. Better: before giving money, volunteer for a while. Chip in time or talent, and, by working with the organization, you'll soon have a clear idea of what they're made of. You'll find out whether they're truly as earnest and dynamic as their brochure paints them! You'll also learn how competent the people are - significant because screwed-up organizations, however well-intentioned, won't do much good with your money.

A big bonus is that you'll be helping with more than just your bank account. And that feels a lot better than just coldly opening your checkbook!

I've gone this route with a number of organizations over the years, all of which looked great on paper. I've found that the view from the inside is often very different. This method has helped me dodge some bullets, and donate far more wisely. And I suspect my efforts (editing copy, helping with branding, etc.) have helped at least as much as my donations.

This only works for smaller charities, however. Volunteers at large non-profits rarely see the workings above middle management level, and it's hard to judge operations via a manager or two.

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