It's great to be able to choose to support a very
broad range of charities. But it's often not easy to choose!
We certainly can't tell you -- and shouldn't
tell you -- which charities to support. All we can do is give
you more information about a broad range of charities that meet
many basic accountability standards. And give you some ideas
about what to consider as you make your choices.
What about low overhead?
All charities in this service must have
combined fund-raising and administrative costs around 25 percent
or less, often much less. We note the costs of each charity.
They vary a lot.
Should you choose a charity because its
costs are among the lowest? Obviously, if overhead is most
important to you, that should be a key consideration. But
the amount a charitable group spends on overhead can vary for reasons
other than simply efficiency. Some charities will inevitably
have higher overhead:
- Younger charities often have higher costs because they
don't have a base of loyal donors built up over many years of
work. Or they aren't as well known as older charities.
- Smaller charities often have higher costs because the basic
administrative expenses -- management, accounting, office space,
etc.-- make up a bigger portion of a smaller budget.
- Charities that appeal to very specific groups of people -- those
with a rare disease or minorities or residents of a certain community
-- may have higher costs because it's harder for them to raise
money from the general public. At the same time, organizations
with a natural and loyal constituency -- such as the alumni of
a college -- may find it easier to raise money.
- Groups that do controversial work may find it harder to raise
money because many people prefer to give to organizations doing
the type of charitable work that seldom generates controversy,
such as feeding hungry children.
- Groups that rely completely or mostly on volunteers obviously
will have very low costs. Gifts to them can go a long way.
But relying on volunteers can lead to problems such as high turnover.
What about where a charity works?
Many people prefer to support charities
that are working in their own communities. The work of such
charities often seems more concrete. You can see it.
Your neighbors or your community as a whole may be directly benefiting
from their work. It may be easier to learn about the work
of local charities because it is highlighted in a local newspaper,
or someone you know may work with the group. You can work
with the group and develop the kind of insight that only comes with
Supporting local charities is great!
Nothing can substitute for direct involvement with a charitable
group. It is the essence of American volunteerism: people
coming together to help other people in their own communities.
But keep in mind that some problems that
charities confront aren't easy to tackle at the local level.
Take the problem of air pollution for example. Often, some
of the air pollution experienced in one area is at least partly
generated in another area and carried by prevailing winds.
Or water problems are caused by pollution from upstream. To
deal with problems such as these may require a regional or national
approach. A local group working on its own may not be able
to have much impact on such problems.
Other people believe that the people with
the most desperate needs are those in extremely poor countries,
thus they support charities that work internationally.
What about the way charities help
people in need?
Most people prefer to support charities
that provide services directly to people in need: food for the hungry,
shelter for the homeless, doctors for sick children. Nothing
is quite so gratifying as concretely helping one person in need.
Indeed, many people firmly believe that "charity" means providing
a direct service to those in need. Nothing more. Nothing
Others, however, just as firmly believe
that there are many ways to help people in addition to providing
something concrete like food, shelter or health care.
They argue that it is also important
to have charitable groups that focus on educating us about a problem
we once knew little about, such as Alzheimer's Disease, AIDS, or
Or to support groups that give a
voice to those whose struggles may otherwise be ignored, such as
the poor, minorities, animals, victims of crimes, people with disabilities
and many others.
These people make an interesting argument:
sometimes the best way to help the greatest number of people who
have similar needs is by educating the public or policy makers or
advocating for a program or law.
Take hunger, for example. No one
would argue against the value of a food drive or a "soup kitchen"
as a way to feed hungry people. But some would argue that
the greatest long-term impact on the problem of hunger in America
was made by those groups that educated the country about the existence
of widespread hunger and pushed for the Food Stamp program in the
1960s. This program has helped feed tens of millions of children
and their families during the following decade.
We are not arguing that one way of helping
people is better than another, only that how a group helps people
is an important factor for you to consider when deciding which charities
to support. Our own personal preference is probably for groups
that are able to combine providing services with educating people
and doing some advocacy.
Keep in mind that every charity in this
information service -- indeed, any organization that can receive
tax-deductible gifts -- cannot engage in any partisan political
activity. They can't work for candidates, endorse candidates,
make donations to political parties or do any other directly political
work. A few groups that have done these things are now in
serious trouble with the IRS. Charities also have strict limits
on the amount of their income they can spend on advocating for their
What about size and name recognition?
Some charities are known by practically
everyone. Others are unknown to most people. Some are
quite large. Others are tiny.
If you support a large, well-known charity,
you can be pretty sure that this is a group that has been around
for awhile and will continue to be around, that is big enough to
have an impact and clout, that it will almost certainly have an
audit and other policies to ensure accountability.
If you support a smaller, less well-known
charity, your gift may constitute a larger part of its budget.
It may be easier to get involved in other ways, such as by volunteering.
Sometimes, smaller, local groups have a more active volunteer board,
if for no other reason than all the board members are local people
who can more easily get to board meetings. Your gift may help
the group develop its programs and services.
We could make very strong arguments for
supporting both kinds of charities. Again, it's your choice!
What about their effectiveness?
This may be the most important question...but
also the toughest to answer. Much advice about giving focuses
on a group's overhead and other measures of its financial accountability.
But a group's programmatic accountability can be every bit as important.
Are its programs or services or advocacy really making a difference
for the people it is trying to help or the cause it is trying to
The best way to determine a group's effectiveness
is to somehow get involved with it...by being a volunteer, working
on one of its committees, helping it raise money, attending its
events or workshops, becoming a member...whatever you can do.
When you do become involved, you'll be
able to see pretty quickly how organized it seems, how committed
its staff and volunteers seem to be, how it treats its staff and
volunteers, how helpful it seems to be for those it is trying to
help, how efficient it is and much more.
If you can't personally get involved, try
to find someone who is involved and ask them what they think about
Short of this, talk to staff or volunteers
and/or ask for and read material about the group. If you do, here
are some questions to ask:
- Does it have at least a simple annual report and/or newsletter.
- Do they give you a good idea about what the group does?
- Is it clear how the group is making a difference?
- Does its newsletter seem like it would be useful for its audience?
- Does the annual report include some information about its finances?
Is there a list of people and businesses that support the group?
- Does the report make some attempt to evaluate its work, such
as the number of people it served during the past year?
- Does the material make its work real, perhaps by talking about
a specific family or community it helped?
For the charities in this information
service, we think the questions that we have asked them to answer
should give you a good start in deciding which ones you would like
Link here to read 10 precautions recommended by the FTC
to avoid charity fraud:
If we can answer any other questions, please do not hesitate to
email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
or call us toll-free at 1-888-410-1999.