A Guide to Giving
By Evan Davies
December 20, 2011
Do you give/donate/tithe money or stuff to nonprofits? Out of the 1 million-plus nonprofits in America, how do you decide which one(s) to give to? Do you spread your giving around for different causes or hone in your most trustworthy organization? Has your giving been primarily based on pulled heart-strings? We’re all called to be good stewards, and giving can be part of that, but we need to take it one step further and make sure nonprofits are really doing good with God’s gifts. [Editor’s note: Check out RELEVANT’s 2011 Gift Guide for some fair-trade, eco-friendly and conscientious gift options.]
Here are a few things to think about before you cut a check or empty out your food pantry to help nonprofits have a greater impact on the people they are serving:
1. Don’t obsess on overhead. Aid work, especially international development, is extremely tricky. You want your money to go to good use and for that, there are associated costs. The excessive focus on administrative cost can do more harm than good. Nonprofits might understaff projects or prioritize projects with low administrative costs that might not be what’s best for communities they are trying to serve. If you are looking for meaningful financial information, ask them or look on their website about spending specifics. Does the nonprofit disclose how much money is spent in each country and village? Do they share detailed information on how money is spent on individual projects? Do they have an independent financial audit each year? The answers to these questions will give you a much more realistic picture of the nonprofit’s spending habits.
2. Consider the most helpful and efficient giving method. It’s that time of the year again: food banks and gift-giving charities are making their end-of-year pleas for donations. I know I’ve been guilty of this, reaching deep into the pantry to pull out something canned that I know I bought for some reason but can’t think of how I could eat it now. Not only am I getting rid of my clutter, I’m doing it for a good cause! Gifts in kind or sometimes #SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) can do more harm than good. Items cost money to move and process, and they severely limit what nonprofit can do with them. Unless it’s on a nonprofit’s recommended list, I would suggest leaving it in your pantry or closet. This is especially true for organizations sending things abroad. Gifts in kind can be harmful to local economies and are highly inefficient for the nonprofit to ship. So what to do with all your stuff? If it’s worth anything, sell it. Use all the resources you have, eBay, a local used clothes store, Better World Books, a yard sale. Take the money you get, and donate it to the nonprofit of your choice. This allows nonprofits to determine the very best way to maximize your gift. It’s estimated that a dollar donated to a food bank can purchase 20 times more food than an individual can purchase retail.
3. Look for good projects to fund. A friend of mine was sharing his dismay with a certain organization that he had donated money to, and later found out that only 35 percent of the money donated goes to the project he thought it would. At first I thought this sounded horrible, but after a little research about what exactly this nonprofit does, I learned this organization serves a completely different need than the one my friend thought they did. If he had spent a few minutes on their program page, he would not have been disappointed in his giving and they could have pointed him in the direction of another organization that addresses the cause he wanted to give to.
Unfortunately, the success of a nonprofit is not determined by how good they are helping folks or fulfilling their mission. Sometimes bad nonprofits do quite well due to their great marketing or niche cause. This is where you and I come in. Spend some more time this year researching and thinking about who you are giving to. Think about what it could be like to be on the receiving end. Would receiving a bag full unusable canned goods give you choice? Would strangers showing up unannounced to shower your children with gifts be dignified? Make sure the help you give is the help people need. 'Tis the giving season; let’s make sure it’s not about our need to be charitable but about the needs of those who are looking for grace and peace this holiday season—and beyond.