Give wisely this holiday season

Learn which nonprofit organizations actually help the causes they support

In the wake of a season of natural disasters, 2017 has already been a year of charitable giving.  Charities raised more than $350 million nationwide in the three weeks following Hurricane Harvey, with millions more after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This is not including the coming winter months, when an estimated “25 percent or more of all annual giving in the U.S. occurs.”

With the emphasis on donations we’ve seen and will continue to see through the year’s end, some people are concerned about giving smartly. Is our money going where we want it to?

Earlier this month, the American Red Cross, one of the most well-known and trusted humanitarian organizations, “confirmed that more than $5m (£3.8m) of aid money was lost to fraud and corruption during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” In an interview with NPR several months earlier, Red Cross executive Brad Kieserman admitted to not knowing how much of each donated dollar actually went to Harvey relief. Much of this kind of information still isn’t public, even after discovering 25 percent of funds donated to Haiti in 2010 went to internal spending.

But I’m not just hating on the Red Cross. In 2012, watchdog group CharityWatch  published a list of “‘Not So’ GreatNonprofits” including Feed the Children, National Foundation for Cancer Research, and Parkinson’s Research Foundation. Being informed about where you donate should now be common sense.

Whether you’re giving in the wake of a disaster or as a regular end-of-year habit, do your homework. A simple online search makes this easy and totally doable. Websites such as Charity Navigator and evaluate charities to assist donors in finding trustworthy recipients. Some websites also allow you to search by specific issues, which is helpful when you have a cause you care about but need help finding relevant charities.

When evaluating a potential charity, it’s best to look at both the group’s website and a third-party site like a charity evaluator, or search Google to see if the charity has received any bad press. Find out what specifically your money is funding. Is the organization transparent about allocation? What other projects are they working on? What percentage of each donation goes to internal costs or advertising? Charity evaluators often break down spending, a major aspect in gauging worthy organizations. Do these third parties align with the charity’s own claims? Transparency is key when it comes to trustworthy organizations.

Other tips:

  • Check an organization’s status as a tax-exempt charity through the IRS database.
  • Donate on your own time; you don’t need to give in to pressure on-the-spot. You can always ask for the charity’s name and donate later.
  • Assess the impact the charity has had in people’s lives. GiveWell includes this factor in its evaluations so you are able to know if an organization is actually making a difference.

Mystery Flavor is an ongoing column by Jordan Ellis.