Donating to Charity or Who Should Get My $10 This Month?

My 85-year-old aunt has recently started talking about her “legacy” and thinking hard about what she wants to leave behind when she dies. She has no living children, and her husband died suddenly years ago. She was not a career woman; rather, she devoted her time and energy to her husband’s career and to the arts. She taught college-level courses in history or English or art from time to time. She is a talented artist. She is extremely well read and has a long memory for people and events. She prefers reading nonfiction, especially lengthy biographies and books about history and politics.

She talks about how her memory is at times a burden, knowing that she is the only one who remembers certain events and feeling responsible for getting things right. Lately people have been trying to pick her brain about the history of the college where her husband taught for over fifty years. Mostly she doesn’t volunteer information that might not be 100% accurate, not wanting her potentially faulty memories to end up in the official records. She has lived frugally over the years and managed her money well, so now she is in the enviable position of being able to support causes she believes in and to think about ways her influence can live on after she dies.

I had never thought about a legacy in quite the same terms, but my aunt has been a true inspiration for me. Not only is she thinking about which organizations should receive her property, but she is thinking about what her gift will represent for future generations and where it can do the most good. Apparently, she is not alone. In 2009, individuals donated $227 billion to charitable organizations.

I was surprised to see how small the percentage of donations by corporations compared with individuals.

On a much, much smaller scale, I go through similar thought processes every time I receive a request for money from a charitable organization. With so many worthy causes out there, where would my small donations do the most good? Should I divide what I can afford to donate and send $5 or $10 to several organizations I care about or send one slightly bigger donation to one organization? Should I use the unsolicited address labels and greeting cards and calenders they send, even if I don’t send any money in return? How can I be sure that my donation won’t just go to print more address labels and mail more requests to other people to donate money? If I agree to send them money, will they stop wasting so much paper on mailings?

Knowing I can’t send money to every worthy cause, how do I choose which ones to support? Every day I get some new plea for help, with glossy photos of people or animals who need my support and sad stories of what they are up against. In case I’m not convinced by their need, I am offered gifts of tote bags, water bottles, cute stuffed animals, note cards, umbrellas, magazines, gardener’s totes, and other enticements to give. Some days I get overwhelmed by all the need in the world and wonder how my limited donations can possibly help. Other days I decide I have to at least try, even if that means I only send $10 or $20 to one or more organizations.

Then begins the hard part, choosing between worthy causes:

  • Should I help the children and families in Africa whose water sources have dried up and crops are shriveled?
  • Or should I donate to the local food bank and help feed children in my own community?
  • Should I continue to send money every month to Child Fund for my sponsored child, Patrick, even though he is now 19 years old? Should I ask to transfer my sponsorship to a different child?
  • Or should I donate to the Rainbow House, which provides emergency shelter for abused children in my town?
  • What about sending money to the Land Institute, which is conducting research into the daunting problem of how the world will feed itself in the foreseeable future?
  • Or maybe I should donate to the local Center for Urban Agriculture, which is working to educate the public on production methods and support the local foodshed.
  • Should I “adopt” an endangered animal from the World Wildlife Fund in support of their conservation efforts. If so, which region of the world and which animal do I care most about? Should I adopt a fox or sea otter or lynx in the Arctic, or a meerkat in Namibia, or frogs in the Amazon, or Monarch butterflies in the Chichuahuan desert, or tigers anywhere?
  • Should I join the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society or the Nature Conservancy or the Jane Goodall Institute?
  • Perhaps it would be better to donate to one of the groups that fights politicians and corporations that pollute the environment and threaten species’ habitat. But would that be the Environmental Defense Fund or the Natural Resources Defense Council or Earth Justice? How do these organizations differ, if at all?
  • Along that line, is it acceptable to sign the petitions to the Secretary of State or to members of Congress about various issues without enclosing a donation?
  • Should I continue my automatic donations each month to MOPIRG‘s efforts to stand up to powerful interests?
  • Maybe it would be better to donate to organizations that fight for human rights, such as Amnesty International or Southern Poverty Law Center?
  • Should I send money to the national democratic party and/or to individual politicians running in races against Tea Partiers?
  • Or would it be better to support MoveOn.org or other progressive groups?
  • What about Toys for Tots? Does a Christmas present make up for not having enough to eat the rest of the year?
  • Should I send money to the Smile Train to repair a child’s cleft palate?
  • How about Heiffer International, which provides families in need with an opportunity to support and feed themselves.
  • Maybe I should make a donation to Women for Women or some other organization that helps women survivors of war, or to the microfinance organization Finca, which provides Village Banking loans to poor working women.
  • What about Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health, an international health organization?
  • Or I could give to Humane Farming Association, which strives to protect farm animals, or the local Humane Society, which provides a safe a caring environment to animals that have been abused or neglected.
  • Maybe I should instead donate to the local Arts Council or Ragtag Cinemacafe or the University Museum of Art and Archaeology or other groups in support of the arts.
  • Education has been an important part of my life. Perhaps I should answer those phone calls from the alumni associations that want my money.
  • Maybe I should donate to one or both of my local public radio stations or to Free Press.net, whose mission is to reform media and transform democracy.
  • I could donate to the Lloyd Shaw Foundation or Country Dance and Song Society, which promote traditional dance and music.
  • I should find out where the money I have taken out of my check each month for United Way actually goes.
  • I wonder which child will be receiving books every month from birth to kindergarten as part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library that I donated to?

And these are just the requests that have arrived in my mailbox this month. There are many, many other organizations worth supporting and many causes worth fighting for. This doesn’t even count other needs that arise throughout the year, such as the campaigns to raise money for the tornado victims in Joplin, Missouri, this spring, or the victims of earthquakes and tsunamis and flooding and wildfires and wars that occur from time to time worldwide.

According to the American Institute of Philanthropy, there are nearly 1.9 million nonprofit organizations, and the competition for funds has become intense. No wonder I feel overwhelmed. But maybe I can at least use their ratings and tips for giving to help me decide where to send my small donations this month.

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