Make Sure Your Donations Have the Biggest Impact by Ruthlessly Judging Charities

As we’ve discussed previously, we love charitable spending, but it can be really hard to figure out the best way to do it. If you followed our advice, you’ve already verified that the charity you’re considering for your donations isn’t an out-and-out scam.

But is it a good investment?

A Ford Pinto and a Ford Focus both proclaim to do the same thing (you know, drive), but one does so in a much more sustainable, efficient, and pleasurable manner than the other. How do you sort out the absolute best way to support the causes you care deeply about?

Scrutinize the mission

Missions can be as soaring and lofty as they want to be. “Eliminate homelessness” is an example of a noble and valuable and meaningful mission. What it isn’t is a goal. It’s over-broad and impossible for one organization to accomplish on its own.

Much like people, organizations can have SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. “Eliminate homelessness among American veterans in Los Angeles County by 2030” is a rad SMART goal. It’s ambitious, but fully-defined and well within the realm of the achievable.

One really interesting model for charities in this regard is the Carter Center. The mission statement of the Carter Center is to “alleviate human suffering.” Which is… wow. The very definition of unachievable. But under the umbrella of this mission, they defined a much more achievable goal: to eradicate the Guinea Worm.

(Guinea worm is a horrifying parasite that causes intense burning pain, rupturing skin ulcers, fever, nausea, and paralysis. People infected by one often cannot work or even walk. The problem is compounded by the fact that the worm is native to some of the poorest nations on earth. Maybe don’t look it up unless you have a strong stomach.)

In 1989, there were 893,000 cases of guinea worm throughout the world. In 2016, there were 25.

Yes, on the whole planet Earth.

Just 25.

The program the Carter Center created was so strategic and effective that it is extremely likely to close its doors within our lifetimes. They will have successfully removed guinea worm from the face of the planet and saved hundreds of thousands of people every year from a debilitating, horrifyingly painful condition. And then they can move on to another SMART goal toward the broader mission of “alleviating human suffering.”

Establish the methods

Let’s say you lost a relative to breast cancer and want to direct people to donate to a charity in her honor. What exactly do you want done with the money?

Some organizations provide medical care for people with breast cancer; some give direct financial aid to impoverished people with breast cancer; others provide specialized services for men with breast cancer; some investigate the environmental link to breast cancer; others research new treatment methods; some focus on prevention; some fund early detection programs; and some “raise awareness.”

But what does that mean, exactly? What does it mean to “raise awareness”? Whenever you see this phrase you should always, always, always dig for more information. Depending on the nature of their work it can be fine, but oftentimes it’s a symptom of a well-intended but aimless effort. Posting the color of your bra to Facebook does absolutely fuck all for anybody with breast cancer. Worse still, it can convince people that they’ve done their part.

Remind me to write an article later about this particularly asinine brand of “raising awareness.” It will just be a photograph of some blood that shot out of my nose and sprayed all over my keyboard because not enough people “raised awareness” about awareness-induced rage strokes.

Doing the most good

Medical charities that provide ancillary services and support for existing patients can be great. I have no doubt that cancer patients benefit from wigs and rides and meals and emotional support. But I personally don’t give my donations to them, and I want to share why.

I have no doubt that meeting a favorite celebrity is emotionally meaningful to one single child stuck in a chemo bed. But my practical side insists the donations spent to arrange such services would be better spent on making sure that child never ends up in a chemo bed in the first place. I would first prefer that money go toward research into the causes of cancer; second to innovations in treatment; third to potentially life-preserving services like financial assistance and transportation for impoverished cancer patients; and last of all to “nice-to-have” non-life-preserving services.

This is practical on another level, which is that those third and fourth tiers are something that individuals and communities can help address. If a friend or family member got sick, I could drive them around. I could cook them some meals, or I could rustle them up a wig. I can even plan and execute a large-scale fundraiser for donations. But I can’t figure out why they got sick or how to best treat that sickness. All I can do for the first two tiers is give money to the people who have the expertise to make potential breakthroughs. And that’s personally what I want my donations to do.

… But that’s just me! Some people might prefer to light up a child’s eyes with a visit from Spiderman, and that’s fine. It’s all adding net good to the world. Some just do so more efficiently than others.

Just don’t scrutinize too much

One thing I want to note is that nonprofits need space and autonomy to do what they do best.

If you’ve done your research, you know that they are considered trustworthy experts in their industry. Donating money to them is an act of trust. You, Guy and Guyrina McAverage, don’t necessarily know how your money can best be spent. You have to trust the professionals who work within that organization to know how to best aid their own aims.

Some people might be super disappointed or even angry to learn that their $100 donation went to furnishing an animal shelter with, say, a month’s supply of coffee instead of a complete spay/neuter procedure. But if you’re willing to donate, you have to trust that they’re making that choice because it’s what they most desperately need. Maybe they have an $800,000 dollar grant that covers spay/neuter procedures but all the vets are so slammed that they don’t have time to hit Dunkies and a little coffee throughout the day can help them stay on-site and focused on their job.

Renowned Jamaican philosopher-crab Sebastian tells us that “children got to be free to lead their own lives.” Word. Don’t try to fiddle with earmarking your donations for specific purposes. It’s not your place to police how the money gets spent. Everybody wants their $1 to be the $1 that cracked cancer genes, but it’s equally meaningful if your $1 bought printer toner or garbage can liners. Those needs may not be glamorous, but they’re still needs.

Sebastian the philosopher says make your donations count.

Double-check for jerkiness

One additional complication: some charities do great work and have good efficacy ratings, but get up to some kind of jerk nonsense on the side.

Solid example: have you ever put donations into the bell-ringing Salvation Army kettles at Christmastime? If so, your money went to great stuff like alleviating the suffering of homeless people. But it also went to paying lobbyists to convince the government to shield non-profits from anti-gay discrimination laws. And also to so-called “conversion therapy.” And also to hiring lawyers to cover their asses when the Salvation Army fired gay employees. They’ve worked hard to rebrand themselves as queer-friendly, but the facts are the facts and a fancy rebranding campaign does not erase the harm that they’ve done with their donations.

Remember that although only about 2-4% of the population is estimated to be LGBT, 40% of homeless youth are queer. A lot of these kids are homeless because they were pushed out by bigotry and hatred within their own homePolicies of discrimination have life-and-death consequences, especially for vulnerable groups. By supporting anti-LGBT policies, the Salvation Army is feeding the very problem that they claim to combat.

UCK. I need a goddamn shower now. No, I need several goddamn showers. This shit is gross.

Using charitable platforms to push discriminatory policies is a no-no jerk move. There are so, so many charities that work with homelessness that it is entirely unnecessary to donate to one that folds a doctrine of discrimination into its bosom.

A thought on religion

I realize this will be scandalous to some, who may view it as accusatory and unfair… but as a rule of thumb, I eschew all religiously-motivated charities.

To be sure, many of these organizations have dedicated employees, killer infrastructure, and noble mission statements. But no matter how good the work they do, if the bottom line in their mission statements is proselytization, they’re not getting donations from me.

The Salvation Army, at some point, decided that the best way to “preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination” was to spend donations seeking permission to discriminate against a minority group. A minority group who comprised a near-majority of the people they claim to provide services for. The hypocrisy is chilling. And in no way does that align with my own personal values.

You have other options.

There are plenty of secular charitable organizations whose focus isn’t split by loyalty to a religious cause.

So who gets your donations?

My personal strategy is to identify a few causes that are meaningful to me, research reputable charities within these fields, and donate only to those.

Homelessness among gay youth and multiple sclerosis research and wolf conservation and clean water access and contraceptive education and wigs for cancer victims are all amazing things, but you will go broke and crazy trying to support them all. Pick something that’s dear to your heart and within your ability to research and give only to that charity.

Check in with your people

A great way to find a home for your donations is to listen to the people in your life who work for charitable nonprofits. Learn about what they do, listen to them talk about their work, and decide if it sounds like a good use of your money. These people are already your buddies, so they probably have values similar to your own. They might also have inside info on the best time or way to donate. “Hold onto that money until June, because that’s when we run an annual campaign with donor-matching” is solid, solid teamwork.

Occasionally, friends, family, and coworkers may ask you to donate to something you don’t necessarily want to support. It’s an awkward situation. I respond: “I’d love to, but my budget for charitable spending is already allotted for the year. Let me know if I can help you get the word out.”

Go local

I also tend to avoid donating to huge, name-brand national charities entirely. It’s not because I don’t trust them to do good work. (I’ve done my homework and I know they’re in the clear.)

Rather, the reason is impact. Every year, I donate a few hundred bucks to the dog rescue I got my pooches from. One woman runs it, all on her own, out of her own backyard. She can barely make ends meet and essentially operates at a loss, but she loves what she does and can’t stop herself from doing it. She throws her whole heart into it. A few hundred bucks is nothing special to United Way. But for this woman, it’s extraordinarily meaningful. It’s enough to save a few extra lives.

It gives me those good-boy warm-glows all over, and that’s what charitable spending should feel like. Feeling good about what you’ve done is how you turn acts into habits.

Try microlending

Economists have posited that the best way to alleviate poverty may be giving poor people money. Turns out, poor people are as industrious and autonomous and self-aware as us regulars! Amazing! Who knew?

That’s what makes micro lending so attractive and rewarding. Kiva is a rad option, as it allows you to choose the individual person you’d like to support. My $50 yearly Kiva investment has helped a Mongolian horse rancher, a Peruvian chicken farmer, and a latrine-less village in Sri Lanka. It’s really rewarding to see the stories behind your investment and to know exactly how the money gets spent. And when the recipient pays me back, I can add a bit more money, pick someone new, and start the process again.

Donate in kind

Every organization can use money. Money is a thing that can be turned into everything else. But in some instances, remember that a donation of volunteer hours or professional services might be even more meaningful than money.

If you have some specialized marketable skill, try offering your services to the charity for free or for a reduced rate. We err toward the reduced rate for reasons that are discussed here. Basically it’s a great way to make sure your time is used thoughtfully.

Trust your gut

Ultimately, donating to a charity is an exercise in trust. Most of the people working for nonprofits care a whole lot about the causes they represent. Many earn far less than they should. Many give up opportunities to work in higher-paid corporate positions in order to feel like they’re making a positive change in the world. If someone wants to hit it rich, working for a nonprofit organization in such a way that wastes money is… hella not efficient.

Find out, to the best of your abilities, if your values align. If they do, then let your money fly. The most inefficient way to donate to charities is to not do it at all, so don’t let fear of imperfection stop you from throwing some dollars toward something you care deeply about.

We have several readers who’ve identified as non-profit employees, and that’s something that makes us super excited! I sincerely and unsarcastically look forward to the warm glow of your gentle corrections in the comments below!

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9 thoughts to “Make Sure Your Donations Have the Biggest Impact by Ruthlessly Judging Charities”

  1. Love this post, especially the parts about “raising awareness” causes and checking for jerkiness. Microlending is something I haven’t looked into but makes a lot of sense – I like the idea of being able to “recycle” the same amount of money over and over. I’ll have to read up on that more!

    In regards to donating in kind, that in itself could be a whole other interesting post. There’s a lot to consider in donating time or goods that people don’t realize. Canned food drives and volunteering in shelters on holidays are some of the most common tropes of how to “give back”, yet they are some of the least effective ways of making a difference. A great example of good investment of “donating in kind” would be the lawyers who coordinated to offer pro-bono services to people detained at airports around the country recently. I’d be interested to learn more about ways we could more effectively pool our time/energy/skill resources.

    1. Thanks Meg! How ‘BOUT those pro-bono lawyer-warriors? That is an excellent example of using your skills and expertise for the forces of good, and it was so much more valuable in the moment than their monetary donations would have been. I like the idea of investigating ways to effectively donate in kind. It would be horribly counter-productive to volunteer your time only to end up getting in the way and being more of a hindrance to the charity you you want to help.

    2. So glad you liked it! We will definitely add a “how to volunteer efficiently” post to the pile, because you’re totally right about the examples you gave. Even people who don’t have a super high-demand skill can still help a lot just by being game to showing up (not on holidays) to do ugly, non-glamorous hard work. My animal shelter gets tons of people signing up to volunteer expecting to “socialize” (play with) the puppies. At least two-thirds vanish into vapor trails when they realize that what we actually need are volunteer laundresses of endless puppy diarrhea-stained towels.

  2. Awesome post!

    I love the idea of Kiva! I think this is something I would actually donate money to!

    I have a harder time donating blind money to a cause, no matter the trust level. I would rather donate time or items. For example, every year we take salvation army Christmas angels and buy toys for them. These things actually make their way to the families instead of to the lobbyists and lawyers.

    My work has a charity they are invested in called Our House. They help the give homeless people a place to live and also ways to transition in the world, like job training. They give them interview clothing and try to set up job interviews for them

    Great post!

    1. Hey Cameron! Great point on donating goods directly. Sometimes this can be inefficient, as Meg pointed out above. Food pantries are usually able to facilitate much cheaper bulk donations directly from manufacturers, and canned food collection isn’t a great way to stretch a donation dollar. But toys are a great example of a good that they likely couldn’t negotiate to get cheaper themselves–and something that’s sure to end up directly in the hands of local needy children. I know very few homophobic lawyers, and even fewer willing to work for Monster High dolls!

  3. Fantastic post! Charitable giving is such a difficult topic, as it’s not always (heck even rarely) easy to quantify. Plus, the emotional aspect is huge. It feels good to donate a can of food, but that food pantry could probably buy so much more for the price you paid.

    My husband and I are engineers that don’t have any immediately useful skills to most charities, and we’ve recently come to terms with the fact that simply donating money is by far going to do the most good. We’ve officially postponed our “financial independence” date in order to give to some great causes – now and in the future.

    Have you heard about GiveWell? It was started by economists and has an interesting approach to charities.

    1. Felicity, why you gotta go and read my mind like that? GiveWell is definitely on the short-list for future charitable giving-themed topics. Theirs is a super fascinating mission.

      Someone did a podcast a few years back (I *think* it was Freakonomics) on the two best “bang for your buck” causes. They were clean water and domestic abuse services. If an individual doesn’t have easy access to clean water, or isn’t safe in their own home, their economic contribution to their community essentially vanishes. Donating to either of these efforts produces the greatest statistical return on investment. Really, really interesting stuff!

  4. Excellent article! October was “Domestic Violence Awareness” month, another worthy entry into the emoturfing toolkit. There’s no new information, no context-appropriate offerings or events, just a time and attention wasting placebo.

    Government and social services organizations could run campaigns to increase visibility of substantial changes in laws, policies, impacts and resources, eg, Abusive Litigation – Stop abusers from using the courts to continue to abuse victims. A handbook for your judge.


    Cyberstalking is just the beginning. Abusers can use your devices and networks against you. Find and disable apps that abusers use to track and torment victims. – Instructions and help. Explaining to law enforcement, legal and social services personnel… holding onto your sanity and dignity.

    or… Revenge Porn – it’s a crime, not evidence.

    or… 3 sites that are more than pre-packaged content and a Donate page.

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