Article: How to Make Your Charitable Contributions Count

Category: , / 11/27/2013
One of my favorite charities is the Red Panda Network
Image copyright Kaylin Johnson
As the year comes to a close, many of us are thinking of getting in our charitable contributions. Some donate to the same organizations every year, while others choose new charities annually. Then there are some who will find other ways to donate, whether through in-kind donations or volunteering their time. In the midst of a holiday rush that encourages consumerism, I try to remind myself to give to those less fortunate. Plus, it's hard to match the good feeling that comes from giving.

Choosing an Ethical Organization:
  • Charities are essentially large businesses, and they have many expenses, from employee salaries to fundraising efforts. So how do you know how much of your contribution goes to the actual programs you're trying to support?  Charity Navigator is an excellent resource that provides extensive information on many popular charities, and even has useful top 10 lists. I've found this site very useful in the past when looking for an animal rescue site to donate in honor of a friend's pet, as some of the local charities were spending a disproportionately large amount of money on the CEO's salary, as opposed to on programs.
  • Instead of choosing a large organization, I like to focus on smaller charities that target a specific cause and/or animal. Does your friend love King Charles Spaniels? Try an organization such as Cavalier Rescue USA. Some of my personal favorites are the Red Panda Network, the Australian Koala Foundation, and Friends of the Sea Otter.
Stretching Your Dollars:
  • Stretch your contribution by asking about employer matching programs. My former employer matched any contribution over $25, up to a certain dollar limit each year. Also be on the lookout for matching offers, often from companies or private donors, during fund drives.
  • If you want to make sure as much of your money as possible goes to your target cause, consider refusing the "free" gifts that come with your contribution. Many charities offer this option, and less money spent on mugs and hats means more money for your cause. The exception to this is if you really love having something from the charity and want to use it to support and/or advertise that charity. In that case, it's money well spent.
  • Also consider asking to be removed from physical mailing lists. Choose email or none at all; postage and mailers are a large expense for charities.
  • While I am a big fan of coupons and discounts in general, I consider carefully before using them on a charity purchase. As charities are not for profit, taking the discount means the charity loses out on money that could be put to good use. If you wouldn't be able to donate without the coupon, however, I recommend using a coupon.
Unless you plan to promote the charity
with a "free" gift, it's better to refuse it.
Photo: leafar via Flickr
Other Ways to Help:
  • If you don't do this already, consider making charitable gifts for birthdays and other holidays. If your friends and family like a physical present, charities such as WWF and Defenders of Wildlife offer symbolic adoptions. Defenders offers a plush with as little as a $25 contribution; WWF starts around $50.
  • If you haven't heard to referral links, many sites offer rebates (usually from 1-5% of your purchase) to help support a charity. Check your favorite charity's site for details, or visit sites such as Shop for Your Cause for more details. For example, I make my Amazon purchases through a bookmarked referral link that supports a local animal shelter.
  • Be on the lookout for other ways to help. I recently purchased books through Better World Books instead of through third-party sellers on Amazon. You can also use Goodsearch instead of Google to support a charity of your choice.
Local Considerations:
While I love supporting red pandas and other animals across the world, some of the most meaningful contributions I can make are to organizations and people in my own neighborhood.
  • Consider donating in-kind items that are needed most. Be on the lookout for local winter coat drives or food pantry collection bins are your grocery store. While a dozen packets of ramen are great for numbers, many food pantries list items they truly need, such as peanut butter and baby formula. Don't want to buy dairy-based formulas? Soy formulas are needed, too.
  • If you see a panhandler on the street, consider giving that person food or a healthy drink instead of money. Or donate to a homeless shelter instead; they can often provide more food than you could if you bought groceries.
  • If you are short on money but have spare time, consider volunteering for an event or as a recurring commitment to a cause you wish to support.

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