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3 Considerations When Donating to a Cause
July 27, 2017

While the weeks after the November 2016 election saw an unprecedented surge in charitable donations (see here, here, and here), charitable giving had already been on the rise.

For those who are new to charitable giving, the sheer number of causes can be overwhelming. Once you’ve decided what cause you want to support, you still need to decide on the organization. And if you’re concerned about getting a good social return on your investment, figuring out where to put your money can become paralyzing.

As people are looking for ways to amplify their voices, from financial support to organized action, I thought it might be helpful to provide an inside view of nonprofit work. As an organization working in the field, we interact with a variety of nonprofits and have an understanding of the process, constraints, and wide variety of ways in which different organizations handle operations. Here are three things to consider when thinking about where to put your money. We hope this “lifting of the veil” helps you make informed choices on where to direct their money.

  1. Consider how organizations use money

It’s been a popular approach in the past to scrutinize how much money should be going to management and other operating costs versus directly to the organizations’ beneficiaries.

In truth, this is a tricky balance to negotiate.

Of course, as much money as possible should go directly to the people the organization supports or to its programing. CEOs and Presidents of nonprofits should not hoard the money by being paid obscene salaries. No staff should.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should necessarily look for the widest ratio of beneficiary to overhead split in how donations are spent—that might not tell the whole story. Many organizations do more than just give money directly to people. While direct cash transfers can be a great way to spur economic growth, many of humanity’s problems – from civil rights to labor migration – require a more complex approach. If an organization’s operations include other tasks that require professional skills and training (think about counselors or therapists, educators, lawyers, investigators, researchers, doctors, nurses, etc.), those professionals need to be paid.

Sometimes organizations get lucky and attract generous-minded talent (like when Lauren Ellis joined our team to help with rebranding!). However, it’s hard to keep such talent aboard long-term—eventually, everyone has to eat, right? For many organizations, it’s in the best interest of the beneficiaries to have stable, long-term individuals with talent and expertise—who might also be in demand in the private sector, which can offer a more competitive salary.

Organizations also need to spend money on effective marketing to attract donor dollars. It’s no coincidence that many of the biggest nonprofits also have the most beautiful and intuitive websites and the best branding. In our day and age, marketing matters not just for businesses but for nonprofits, too.

If you’re concerned about what proportion of dollars goes directly to beneficiaries versus staff and other operating costs, it might be important to look beyond the simple ratio and evaluate what other ways the organization is supporting beneficiaries and which costs are necessary to ensure the organization is successful in the long-term. All good organizations are transparent about their finances. Look up the organization you’re thinking of donating to on GuideStar, and reach out to them if you have more questions.

  1. Mission and methods

The anti-trafficking field in Thailand has gone through a major period of growth—becoming generally wiser, more thoughtful, and more experienced. We have witnessed a wide variety of approaches and personalities—enough to be aware that there is not just one way to approach the fight against trafficking. While we believe there is a set of best practices, that conversation is evolving, and we are continually trying to learn.

Our experience suggests, however, that it’s necessary to be selective in choosing partners. We partner with those who share the same values. This way we can support each other’s approaches. I would venture to guess that this is true regardless of the cause you support. As movements grow, they evolve over time, and some organizations may be more in line with your beliefs than others. It’s important to look closely not only at whether an organization’s mission aligns with your own, but that their methods flow thoughtfully from that mission.

  1. Every dollar matters—as does every commitment

Sometimes people shy away from donations, fearing that it doesn’t mean much if they can’t afford a big dollar amount. While large donations are certainly appreciated, small ones matter immensely. No matter what you think of his politics, Bernie Sanders demonstrated the power of small donations in large quantity during the 2016 election.

Don’t let the size of your donation prevent you from participating.

Every dollar donated is a dollar that goes toward the cause. Every recurring donation that’s set up is one that an organization knows it can count on. Recurring donations, even the small ones, get written into budgets, and these allow nonprofits to strategically plan for the coming year.

Each donation, large or small, is a voice of support and an act of solidarity.

The intangible measures of support matter too—every like, share, retweet and shout-out on social media helps spread awareness and keep attention on the cause, the mission, and the organization. It all makes a difference.

Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness.

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