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How to Choose the Right Charity

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Charity, St. Stephan's Cathedral in the Background by August Heinrich MansfeldEvery year, Americans donate almost $350 billion to charities. But it is difficult to know where that money goes. Some charities are notorious for spending large percentages on donations on operating expenses. Some charities, no matter how well-meaning, simply don’t do much good. And, in the worst cases, some charities actually undermine the causes many of their donors mean to champion.

If we value giving to charity, how can we be sure our money is being well-spent on causes we support?

1. What does the charity do?

Finding out what a charity does—or claims to do—is fairly simple. Any fundraiser should be able to tell you, or you can usually find the information on the charity’s website. Charity Navigator is another great resource with the mission statements for most charities clearly listed in one place.

2. How does the charity accomplish its goals?

Sometimes a donor and a charity don’t see eye-to-eye on how a charity should accomplish its goals. For example, I’m happy to give money toward the March of Dimes, whose goal is “to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality.” I’m not sure I’m okay with their support of human embryonic stem cell research to meet their goals. On the other hand, some charitable organizations with religious roots spend money lobbying on social issues that don’t seem especially relevant to their stated goals.

It’s easy to see whether a charity’s vision matches your own, but it takes a little research to find out whether you want to financially support their means of achieving that vision.

3. Where does the money go?

Some charities spend more money on overhead than others. (I once worked at a non-profit that spent an unseemly amount of money on Puerto Rican rum for fundraising events.) When you choose a charity, make sure your money is going where you think it is. has a list of America’s top charities for 2012 ranked by “charitable commitments”—the percentage of donations spent directly on furthering their charitable mission.

4. How effective is the charity at achieving results?

Even for the people who work for them, it is almost impossible for most charities with broad goals to measure their success in objective terms. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what they hope to accomplish and whether or not they are doing it.

Any effective charitable organization should have concrete, measurable goals. Look on a charity’s website or talk to its fundraisers to learn how well the charity thinks it’s able to meets its own objectives. Use your own discretion about whether it is fairly assessing its own progress.

My Favorite Charities

Over the past decade or so of giving my own money to charity, I’ve found a few favorite causes I champion.

Catholic Relief Services
(92 cents of every dollar goes to serving those in need)

“Catholic Relief Services was founded in 1943 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States to serve World War II survivors in Europe. Since then, we have expanded in size to reach more than 100 million people in more than 100 countries on five continents. Our mission is to assist impoverished and disadvantaged people overseas, working in the spirit of Catholic Social Teaching to promote the sacredness of human life and the dignity of the human person. Although our mission is rooted in the Catholic faith, our operations serve people based solely on need, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. Within the United States, CRS engages Catholics to live their faith in solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world.”

Goodwill Industries
(88 cents of every dollar goes to serving those in need)

“Goodwill works to enhance the dignity and quality of life of individuals and families by strengthening communities, eliminating barriers to opportunity, and helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.”

I prefer to donate to Goodwill in kind, by donating items I no longer use, and by shopping at their stores. Retail store profits account for almost 70% of Goodwill’s annual budget.


“We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.”

I really like making micro-loans because I can spend the same money over and over again helping to make people’s lives a little better. If you’re interested in giving Kiva a try, e-mail me at for a free $25 trial coupon code.

My Community

There is no better way to insure accountability for your charities than to give nearby. When you invest in your own community, you are not only helping your neighbors, but also making your neighborhood a happier, healthier, and safer place to live. For example, I donate to our church’s food pantry, our local National Public Radio Station, and the Friends of our local library. I also make in-kind donations to the school where I work.

What are your favorite charities? Let us know in the comments.

6 responses »

  1. Reblogged this on Overcomers International Ministry and commented:
    Overcomers International Ministry is such a ministry. This blog is right-being smart with what God gives you is key. There is much cynicism these days towards the church (any of them) and money…too many horror stories and not enough people being helped. Pray before you just give to someone claiming to represent God; go as he directs and if you feel OIM is the way to go-please give as much as you can- either financially or stop by the office with canned goods…you won’t be turned away and there are so many to help! God bless you.

  2. Charity Navigator is awesome, and I also like to support Goodwill. They do a LOT more than run thrift stores – they seriously rebuild peoples’ lives.

    A good rule of thumb is to never, ever support the new charities that always spring up in the wake of a tragedy. Their sterling intentions not withstanding, these groups tend to be monstrously inefficient and will often fold before ever contributing directly to their cause.

    After a hurricane or an earthquake, give to the Red Cross, CRS, CMMB, or some other organization that already has its infrastructure in place.

    • That’s a good point. I know the Red Cross takes some flack after every emergency for saving some of the money from immediate disaster relief to invest into infrastructure, but having that infrastructure in place is so important!

  3. I don’t know if what I am about to say Will change your mind about donating to Good Will or shopping in their stores, but I put it out there for whatever it’s worth. Many facilities run by Goodwill pay their workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage. In some cases workers with disabilities are paid as little as $22 cents an hour. In case you are curious, this is legal… there is a section of the fair labor standards act that permits this…

    • Thanks for bring that up.

      I love Goodwill because, of the charities I know about, they are the most effective at getting the largest number of people to work. The wages for disabled workers do seem unfair, so I’m very open to alternative suggestions.

  4. Heifer International and Doctors without Borders are my two favorites. I also like to support the local Meals-on-Wheels chapter in my area.


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