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Your Charitable Donations: Crisis Relief? Or Guilt Relief?

Topics: Clean & Green | Add A CommentBy admin | April 30, 2010

Sure, it feels good to give. But it feels even better to see results.

Are you the sort of person who occasionally makes charitable donations? If so, do you ask yourself where the money is really going, or just make the donation and operate with good faith about the idea that you’ve done something good? I personally like to do good when I can (which is less then I’d like!), but have a mildly cynical and pragmatic streak that makes me really question what good is occurring as a result of my donation. For that reason, I’ve always questioned the logic behind organizations like Sierra Club or Greenpeace sending me hefty, glossy-stock packages with pleas for support. Part of me instantly recoils and says “Why should I give you money? So you can send out more pricey direct mail pieces like this?” Although I’m no “expert” on non-profit organizations, I’ve learned a lot from working with one in particular called Amara Conservation. It’s a Kenya-based NGO that I got involved with in its inception stage. It was started by a good friend about a year after I had started a for profit venture doing new media work back in 2000. The reason I’ve stayed committed to doing what I can for Amara since then is because the organization had as one of its fundamental principles a commitment to maintaining low overhead, applying funds as directly as possible, and assessing the durability of any project they engaged in rather than just throwing money at problems or applying band-aid solutions. In the work I’ve done with other non-profits, I’ve often encountered two polar extremes that at first surprised me. On the one hand, a sort of mamby-pamby feel-good-about-yourself attitude that in my opinion produced little in the way of results. On the other extreme, massively-funded operations with heavy corporate sponsorship that seem to become all about brand and fund-raising rather than helping. I’ve often caught a lot of flak about my “cynical philanthropy”, which is why I was glad to run across the blog Blood and Milk, maintained by by Alanna Shaikh. She shares a lot of seemingly cynical but actually dead-on observations like how the work of NGO’s is impeded by a culture of “being nice”, why you shouldn’t even bother starting an NGO and if you choose to anyway, how to succeed. In my view, there’s nothing more ridiculous than a bunch of Americans living their relatively cushy lives and feeling good about themselves because they helped pay for a program that benefits no-one. If you ever have wondered where your donations are going, there are a few useful sites that track and rate non-profits. One of the best-organized I’ve found is Charity Navigator, which offers up extensive reporting on organizational efficiency and capacity, revenue and expenditures, even the salaries of the organizations principles. For general tips and guidelines, try the FTC’s Charity Checklist. And those references earlier to big NGO’s and how they raise funds? You might also look at whether or not the organization is a 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) non-profit. Organizations like Sierra Club and Greenpeace are categorized as 501(c)(4), which gives them much more freedom to lobby and engage in politics, among other things.