I recently wrote about the priority of international giving, and we started a discussion on how to help without negative impacts. I wanted to give a roundup of some good ways to approach selecting a charitable cause, particularly in the midst of the Christmas season. There is an increasing movement to subvert Christmas consumerism and a great way to do this to give to a charity on behalf of a loved one. Also maximizing itemized deductions at the end of the year is just financially prudent. As I had mentioned before, giving can be done just out of some sort of obligation with little thought for the net result, or it can be done with a true concern and desire to help others. If you are in the latter, I wanted to try to give some suggestions for charities to give to this season.
Charity Navigator is a great site for getting objective information about the numerous charities out there, and they have an excellent best practices article. There is a key points from this article that is worth emphasizing for those that really want to make the best possible impact. Be proactive in your giving! Determine how you want to impact the world, what type of target you feel most passionate and connected to, where you see the biggest need or best opportunity to use your gift and really focus on making a difference in that area. Be focused, lots of small donations have larger administrative overhead for charities. Diversification is important in investments, but those that make a big impact in the world choose a cause and give themselves wholeheartedly to do everything they can to further that cause. Don’t wait for an emotional appeal. Those that give the best speeches aren’t necessarily the most needed causes. And don’t just randomly select a charity. Do your research, be focused. Find the need that really connects with you and allows to make impact. Let’s explore some possibilities.
There are several dimensions to causes. First, we can ask what type of cause do we want to give to. There are a number of possibilities:
- Food – This is an obvious first choice. The number one cause of death due to poverty is malnutrition (about 12 million a year), and is the cause of one third of all deaths. Furthermore, most of the deaths are children under five. The sheer number of deaths make it hard to argue that there is a more pressing need in the world than providing adequate nutrition to the over a billion that are hungry. The American dollar can go a long ways to buy vast amounts of food as well. Most child sponsorship programs allow you to feed, educate, and provide clean water to a child for around a dollar a day, and just providing bare bones food is much cheaper than that. There are numerous charities in this area. Food for the poor and WorldVision are some of the biggest.
- Water – The lack of clean water is also an enormous problem worldwide. Not only does it lead to millions of deaths a year, but it is linked to massive amounts of time spent fetching water, reducing ability to work, and be educated. Lack of clean water can seriously impede the development of entire communities. Again, wells are incredibly affordable for the impact they provide.
- Medical – Providing medical assistance is another critical component of alleviating poverty. Numerous diseases like Malaria wipe out massive numbers of people yet are highly treatable at very low costs. It is not difficult to actually save numerous without massive donations. MAP International is one of the best charities in this area, with incredibly efficient and impeccable finances. Another interesting charity is AmeriCare, which has partnerships with pharmaceutical and medical suppliers that match gifts such that for every $100 donated, $3500 in relief is provided!
- Community Development – One of the great dangers with the first three causes is meeting needs with handouts and creating foreign dependence and crippling the necessary development of local infrastructure. While directly handing out food, water, and medical supplies in disaster relief can be critical to save lives, in most areas, a more development centric approach to meeting needs is necessary to allow communities to develop self-sustaining infrastructure. This is definitely not mutually exclusive with the other causes, this can be the means of achieving the other causes, and many experienced charities are well-aware of this, providing fantastic holistic approaches to equipping people for long-term development. However, this is where you really need to research a charity, and dig into their approaches to make sure they have a solid long-term perspective.
- Microloans – This has recently emerged as one of the most powerful and successful means for equipping people for long-term development. The Grameen bank pioneered the approach of providing very small loans to impoverished people to give them a chance to start a small business. The results are remarkable, often 98% return rates are being seen. It simply amazing that a $500 can literally be reinvested enough times to start almost 50 businesses! This is an incredible empowering tool and a great return on investment.
- Human Rights – By working for human rights, organizations work to address the foundational aspects of society that often lock people into a poverty. Corruption, disregard for laws, racism, trafficking, slavery, and extortion can create insurmountable barriers to financial success. Organizations like the International Justice Mission and Dalit Freedom are working to end slavery and other debilitating issues of society.
- Education – This is another foundational issue for societal development. As the Chinese proverb goes: “If you plan for one year, plant rice. If you plan for 10 years, plant a tree. If you plan for 100 years, educate a child.” Well said.
- Persecuted Church – The Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors do fantastic work in helping those in haved faced religious persecution for their faith.
- Arts – Sometimes it is hard to consider art as a worthy target of funds when people are dying, yet art has a way of defying our logic. Even in the poorest of communities, art and music are integral to the fabric of life. Somehow it is essential part of the essence of our existenc as a society even when we can’t compute it’s financial value.
The next question is where to give your money. Again, I defended the priority of international giving over domestic giving due the massively larger needs abroad and the incredible buying power and impact our money can have due to exchange rates. Looking more closely at the world, the majority of malnutrition in the world is in southern Asia. Sub-saharan Africa comes next, and in some measures of poverty, central Africa is the most destitute. As a country, India certainly houses the greatest amount of extreme absolute poverty by just about any calculation (of course the size and ethnic diversity makes India the equivalent of about a dozen African countries). If you are looking to help the poorest of the poor, southern Asia and central Africa should certainly be the first places to look. However, there is plenty of poverty in other areas, and if you have connections with another area, that can certainly be a deciding factor in where your resources goes.
Third, we can ask what type of organization we want to give to in terms of philosophy. Charities range from those primarily focused on spiritual tranformation and gospel communication (Campus Crusade, YWAM, and many others) to those that are completely non-religious. Each of these serve different roles, although if you are not religious, presumably you would prefer the latter. Of course, as Christians, donating to Christian charities makes sense.
However, even as Christians, non-religious organizations can be a very legitimate charitable target. Unfortunately, Christians have often discounted efforts that aren’t linked to the church, as if efforts to alleviate suffering don’t really “count” if “we” don’t get credit for it, or if doesn’t achieve the goal of spreading the gospel. This troubling perspective is seen in other areas, even in politics where many are opposed to efforts to help the poor if comes through the government instead of directly through the church. This is distinct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus that emphasize a holistic perspective on helping the world, without constraints on charity being mediated by the church. Giving to a non-religious charities can help break down this type of uncooperative attitude and demonstrate a willingness to work with others to solve world problems without an posture of being only willing to help others if it helps our particular denomination/club/mission.
Fourth, we can ask what type of resources we want to invest. Of course money is generally the most needed and most frequently donated. For local charities, other physical resources can be valuable (clothing, food, etc.).
Actually going yourself is one the biggest investments you can possibly make, of course. While this is a big commitment, one shouldn’t downplay the importance of our financial giving. In fact many long-term charitable workers and missionaries have tremendous difficulty in maintaining funding for their work, many spend a large percentage of their time raising funds rather than actually doing the work they want to focus on. This demonstrates that finances are every bit as needed as human resources.
There are also political avenues for affecting positive change in the world, such as communicating with leaders that can have an impact in areas of social injustices and corruption. With many critical issues, like the desperate situations in Sudan and Congo at the moment, governmental influence is probably one of the only truly effective means of change.
Anyway, if you are looking for gift for someone, again consider a charitable donation in their name. Many charities are now offing gift cards which actually let’s the recipient participate in the selection of who receives the funds, a fun way them to really get too see what is happening. Also consider what this type of gift says to the ones you love. Would you rather communicate to someone that you really respect their love of justice and integrity so you got them a donation to International Justice Mission, or you admire their compassion and empathy, so you sponsored a child for a year in their name, or on the otherhand, that you really are impressed at how long they can lounge on a couch in front of their TV, so you got them some movies?
Finally, put some thought and research into finding a particular cause that you can really get behind and focus on in 2011. There is little that is more fulfilling that having something bigger than yourself to invest in.