Monday, November 26, 2007

What Are the Best Charities?

It's that time of year: all the fuss over Black Friday and holiday gift guides can lead to a certain level of disgust with rampant consumerism and greed. The story that did it for me was a mention of a woman who hurled her entire body onto a pile of $50 digital photo frames at WalMart to make sure she'd be able to buy one.

So what's a good antidote? Thinking about ways to help people whose needs are more basic, or organizations that do valuable work. I have given to a variety of charities this year-- I'm committed to donating all profits from this blog, and I'm finally getting to the point where my ad revenues are enough to increase my giving quite a bit. Here's some of the organizations I've given to this year:

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
American Cancer Society
WNYC New York Public Radio
Pan-Massachusetts Challenge
Heifer International

It can be hard to decide to whom you want to donate. In my case, it's often been that someone I know asks me to donate, and I say yes, knowing it's a major charity for a good cause. But sometimes I wonder if I should be doing more research about who uses the money best. I get so much junk mail from charities, how do I know which ones are deserving? Sometimes I just get lazy and want recommendations... so who better to ask than my wonderful community of readers?
What are your favorite charities? Who do you think deserves your money, and why? Please give a bit of explanation and hopefully this will turn into a good resource. And I will try to donate more ad revenue to the charities you recommend, since you readers are responsible for whatever comes in. Thanks!


Not all those who wander are aimless said...

I usually give to religious charities or health related ones but for some suggestions, check out this month's Marie Claire. There is a charity listed at the bottom of almost every page along with their website. Happy giving!

frugal zeitgeist said...

Doctors Without Borders is my favorite. I also support cancer research, the American Heart Association, Parkinson's research, and the New York Times Neediest Cases fund. is a good way to check on how much of your money actually goes to support what you intended.

Anonymous said...

How about the ASPCA; Help Darfur Now; Any organization (worldwide) that is working to prevent violence against women and girls. If possible, inquire about what percentage of donations are for actual charitable needs versus the percentage used for administrative purposes such as payroll or advertisements. Let us know what you decide!

Anonymous said...

I personally donate to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). I have family members with diabetes, and I want to do what I can to help.

I also donate to City Harvest (feeds homeless in NYC) and my alma mater. I went to school on scholarship and I like to pay it forward.

Anonymous said... is a good source of information on how efficiently each charity uses its money. My favorite charity has become Brother's Brother Foundation, which supplies things like medical equipment and supplies, textbooks, and other humanitarian needs (largely in third world countries, but it does it's share in this country). Charity Navigator gives it a four-star rating.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking for specifically secular humanitarian aid charities. I personally do not consider charities like the Red Cross to be secular. Anyone got any ideas? Right now I'm donating to "Food For The Hungry" but they are distinctly Christian.

Anonymous said...

Grameen Foundation - - which might interest you because their motto is "fighting poverty with microfinance."

I also give to UNICEF, groups that work to help victims of domestic violence and National Network of Abortion Funds, which helps women facing financial barriers to abortion (

When I really like a group, I try to get on the monthly donation plan, where your credit card gets charged something small like $10 each month, but you wind up giving a decent amount over the course of the year.

Unknown said...

I love Direct Relief International. They provide medical supplies (anything from medicine to wheel chairs) to people all over the world. They are remarkably efficient with their money.

Anonymous said...

I have the same question and get sad each year when I look at how many organizations there are which are doing good work and which I am not donating to. However, I only have a limited amount of money, so I have to prioritize. I console myself by telling myself that other people are also donating, and so all together we are making a difference. If we all donate to causes that are important to us, then most important causes will be getting some donations.

First I decided to finance fixes rather than bandaids, and things that address causes rather than symptoms.

Second, I try to help with the issues I think are most important. For example, I'd rather fight poverty, which affects all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, than to fight cancer, which affects mostly people who have already lived pretty good lives.

Third, I would rather work for a direct change than beg governments to do things. I'd rather enable people to help themselves than to make a law forcing people to do things they may or may not want to do.

Currently, I am donating to the following organizations:

1) The Nature Conservancy - a broken environment affects every life form on the planet. This group buys land directly and talks landowners into treating their land well, working with them in a cooperative rather than threatening way. They can't buy everything, so they research the most critical areas, and focus on those. They also try to gain control of large enough tracts to make a difference. I used to work for a biologist who worked with them, and that's why I trust them now.

2) Conservation International - I think they do the same types of things with lower overhead. I don't know if they're as good, though, so I split my environmental money between these two organizations.

I would also like to help with oceanic environments and have heard an environmentalist say that smaller, local efforts tend to be more effective than large environmental groups, but I haven't found anything yet.

3 and 4) ACCION International and FINCA International - microlenders. They work in very poor areas where tiny loans can make a big difference. For example, a person might get a loan to buy a sewing machine. Now she can sew more than she needs and sell the extra for profit. She can use some of that money to pay back the loan and the rest to improve her standard of living. The lenders meet in groups for mutual support and good peer pressure. I feel like this is a more efficient use of my money than providing food or clothing and I like the way people choose for themselves what they want the loan for. Woolie, this is the closest I get to nonreligious humanitarian aid, but is probably not what you're looking for.

5) Planned Parenthood - this is a weird one, but I feel that giving people the tools they need to limit their family size if they want to can help with environment and poverty issues.

I am also looking for a way to reduce pain. I once donated to the Arthritis and Cancer Pain Research Center, but I'm not as confident with this choice as with others.

I do my giving through They do take 3% off the top to pay their expenses, but they do a lot of research and make available a lot of information. And it costs them a lot less than it costs my employer's charitable program. And best of all, you can make your contributions anonymously, which means no one has to thank you and which means no one has your contact information to beg you for more or to waste resources mailing you loads of stuff. (Be careful, though, "anonymous" is NOT the default.)

I chose these based on descriptions from my employer's charitable program combined with additional research on their websites.

I also "donate" small amounts to become a member of groups that help me personally (such as public TV and the local wildflower center) and from which I do want to receive information, but this money comes out of my entertainment budget rather than my charity budget.

For donations of my time, I change my focus from what would be most helpful to what I am best at. I have good blood to donate, and I am good at tutoring, so although I don't feel like doing these things is as helpful as joining the Peace Corp, I would not actually be good at the latter. Also, of course, I am good at helping out friends and family since I know a bit about their problems and about how "deserving" they are!

This is a great topic, and I hope to learn about more great charities and causes that people have experience with as well as strategies for choosing. I'm actually in the process of picking out who to donate to this year right now.

Anonymous said...

"The lenders meet in groups for mutual support and good peer pressure." I meant that the borrowers meet in groups! Oops!

Anonymous said...

I like charities that meet the basic human needs, like food and housing. In Chicago, I donate to the Chicago Food Depository and Vital Bridges. I agree with the poster who recommended I usually look for charities that give > 80% of each dollar to clients. Frequently, some better known charities have high admin expenses.

Anonymous said...

To add one other thing to my previous comment - I am on the Finance committee of a non-profit, and auditors use the 80% as a benchmark for a fiscally well-run organization.

Anonymous said...

woolie, I'm pretty sure that Doctors Without Borders is a secular organization.
They also score high on charitynavigator.

Anonymous said...

I really like ADRA, especially their Really Useful Gift Catalogue. My kids love it because there are projects for as little as $0.25, and I like it because there are many options for education and economic development, on all continents. It

Anonymous said...

I donate to JDRF too, because I have Type 1 diabetes. I also work part-time at a not-for-profit theatre group near me, and usually donate back about half the stipend I get paid there. I'm a bit selfish with my giving, because I contribute where I will also benefit. Just to take care of the karma factor though, I also donate to Second Harvest Food Bank.


Anonymous said...

I wholeheartedly recommend "Asha for Education" (

An organization devoted to improving primary education in India, Asha's driving force is time donated by Indian students who are or were living abroad. This keeps their administrative costs very low, and also means that the programs are generally designed and overseen by people who grew up in the systems they're working to improve.

Asha gets great ratings on charitynavigator - last I checked, it was middle-ish on the top 10 list, and was #1 on the list of top "small" programs.

(I also very much like donorschoose...)

Great topic, btw!

Anonymous said...

I concentrate on one issue, AIDS, and I don't have much money, so I like giving my time. I am a musician, so I try to help out in ways that use my abilities. I do benefit concerts whenever I can for Classical Action (, which supports people living with that horrible disease. CA joined with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS several years ago, which gave them a larger reach.

Anonymous said...

I sponsor a child through Save the Children and in the past have made donations to larger organizations like UNICEF and Habitat for Humanity.

However, recently I decided to start donating to specific projects, rather than to large entities. Through a website called Bring Light I have donated locally to a rape crisis center and a homeless shelter. I've also donated to Room to Read and other charities that help outside the US.

I like knowing exactly where my money is going and I can communicate with the charities through the site.

Anonymous said...

One group I have supported in the past (before going back to school and subsisting on no money) is the Amazon Conservation Team. I care about conservation, and preserving the world's wild spaces. It is a smaller NGO, so most of the money goes directly to the field. While I like bigger environmental NGO's as well, some of them have a lot of money and get huge donations, in the millions of dollars. The Amazon Conservation Team works with a much smaller amount and is right in the grass roots. They work directly with indigenous communities, so the conservation plans they work on have local support and also build capacity among the local people.
Soon I'll be back to the world of work, and will be looking for a similar group working in ocean environments, which are highly endangered.
I also have given money to relief organizations, but I don't know which are better, and I won't bother recommending you a religious one because I don't know your preferences.
It is nice that you are putting thought into this. It is very difficult to know how to put your donations to use in the best way. The undercover economist recommends giving all your donations to a single group, because that will have the strongest effect--an interesting argument that you might want to look into.
Happy holidays, and thanks for writing about charity instead of shopping in the holiday season : )

Anonymous said... is very good. I don't know whether it counts as a charity per se, as you don't donate money, you lend it to individuals in third world countries to help them set up businesses.

Chitown said...

World Vision

I contribute $35/month.

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

Anonymous said...

This is a research tool recommendation.

The Charities Review Council has a great site called that evaluates charities and helps you determine which causes to support.

It's similar to Charity Navigator but it has 16 different criteria that it uses for evaluating charities-- from overall management of the group to how much fundraising money actually goes to support the mission.

You can also invite charities for a review if you don't see the charity that you are interested in on the site.

I have to admit I haven't done any giving yet this season because now that I know about all of these great tools, I don't want to give blindly any longer. But where to find the time to do the research?!

Anonymous said...

i give to the church i'm apart of in brooklyn.. called the north brooklyn vineyard.

if anyone is interested in giving to a good group of people trying to make a difference in new york.