As the holiday season approaches, it may be time to begin thinking more about charitable giving. Plans for gifting, breaks from work and school and sermons from clergy — not to mention TV commercials urging donations to various nonprofits — allow for more opportunity to think about how, and how much and how often, to give back to the community.
Perhaps it’s time to get involved with a new charity. But where should you start? And how can you ensure that your time and money is doing the most good it can do? Whether you’ve been volunteering or donating funds to organizations for years or you’re totally new to the effort, these six tips for finding a cause you can be passionate about should help you answer these questions and more.
Reflect on your past
A good first step in figuring out what charitable cause will speak to you is to look back at your own life. What events or circumstances have touched you particularly deeply? Which people made particular impacts?
“We have some donors who saw their parents struggle to make ends meet and know the value of a child growing up in a stable, affordable home,” said Mike Posko, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake, which builds homes for people in need.
You could “identify which cause … has personally impacted your family or friends,” said Chris Knoerlein, director of communications and grants for The Arc Baltimore, a nonprofit that helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Thinking about what had the most effect on you or those close to you may lead you to the charity where you’ll feel that you and your funds can do the most good.
Sometimes the answer you’re looking for is closer than you realize. Observe your community with new eyes. What are the needs of the people who live in it? Who could use a helping hand? Perhaps there is a volunteer-run soup kitchen in your neighborhood that’s in desperate need of repair, and you can spare the cash or time and expertise that could go towards helping to fix it. Or maybe there’s an animal shelter in constant need of food and other supplies. Are the causes right underneath your nose ones you can get behind?
“Each individual’s journey is different,” Posko said. “Whether someone is able to give just a few dollars a month or much more, what matters is taking action based on a personal connection to a cause and the desire to make a difference.”
Heed your heartstrings
“Choosing a charity or nonprofit organization to support is not too hard if you start by identifying issues that touch you emotionally,” said Amy Middleton, resource development director for Salvation Army of Central Maryland. “If you get sad or bothered by knowing there are children in your own community who go without eating dinner some nights, maybe you will want to research local organizations that provide assistance with food for families. If you are interested in medical research, consider supporting an organization that spends their dollars to cure diseases.”
Do your homework
Not all charities are created equal. If you’ve decided to give money, make sure it’s going where it counts, rather than toward executive salaries or unnecessary overhead costs.
“Do research on charitynavigator.org to find a charity that serves that cause and handles donations responsibly,” Posko said.
You should also make sure the organization is on sound footing, both financially and cause-wise.
“Read their annual report and financials, visit their website and social media pages and consider visiting with their representatives to hear more about their initiatives and past successes,” Knoerlein said.
Identify the change you want to see
Asking yourself about what you hope to achieve or work toward with your giving is another good way to determine the best charity for your involvement.
“At Habitat Chesapeake, we have some donors who live near disinvested neighborhoods and want to see beautiful old homes brought to life again,” Posko said. By giving of their time and other resources to reviving these homes for those who truly need them, these donors gain a sense of satisfaction from their work.
Determine your needs
Figuring out what sort of response you want or need from an organization is an important determination to make when choosing a charity with which to get involved, Middleton said.
“Decide what type of relationship you want to have with the organization,” she said. “Do you want thank-you notes and stories about how your support helps?” If so, make sure before you commit that your charity of choice sends out such notes. If you prefer anonymous donation with minimal communication, ask the group if that kind of giving is an option. You’ll be much more likely to become passionate about and stick with an organization if it jibes with your personality and needs.
Anath Hartmann is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.