Charity Begins With Homework
Yes, it does make you a better person to give to charity (even though you really wanted to treat yourself to that new flat-panel TV). But choosing a charity to support can be overwhelming, especially in a year like 2005, when the legacy of a tsunami and too many hurricanes may have left you feeling that the number of causes far outstrips the contents of your wallet.
How do you make sure your charitable dollars have the greatest impact? And what's the best way to provide aid to the hundreds of thousands of hurricane victims here at home?
High standards. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance evaluates more than 500 national charities based on financial measures--65 percent of total expenses should be aimed at service activities, for example--as well as governance, fundraising, and donor privacy standards. Go to give.org to see if the charity you're considering meets the organization's standards.
A charity should be able to spell out exactly what it plans to do with your money, either on its website, in a solicitation letter, or to you if you ask. "The more specific, the better," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer for the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. "If they say they're doing reconstruction, how exactly are they going to do that?" A charity might say it has set a goal to rebuild 500 homes, for example, or is concentrating on reconstruction in a specific geographic area like New Orleans's devastated Ninth Ward. Good intentions are no substitute for good management and planning.
Even if your goal is to help Katrina survivors recover, you might want to earmark any donation to a national charity for general disaster relief. Then the charity has the flexibility to use resources where they're most needed. At give.org or charitywatch.org, you can find names of charities involved in hurricane relief efforts.
But sometimes, you can do the most good in your own backyard. Evacuees have resettled everywhere from Houston to Boston. They often need job training, housing assistance, school supplies, day care, and other services. Your local United Way should be able to tell you which local charities are working with evacuees. And as you consider how much to give, remember that for this year only, Congress has doubled the tax deduction you can claim for charitable contributions to 100 percent of your adjusted gross income. So think hard, and dig deep.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.