Sunday, January 17, 2010

Four Things to Assure When Donating Money

This past few days, Americans have been bombarded with images of the pain and suffering in Haiti. Our ability to transmit images to each other is now so advanced that it feels as though the suffering is occurring in our living rooms. This makes their suffering so immediate and personal that we naturally want to help. Stymied from giving directly of our time and talents by the distance and logistics involved, we have poured a stream of money into charities that purport to be able to aid the Haitian people on our behalf.

If you are planning to give to organizations in Haiti, or anywhere else, I urge you to assure that:

1) None of your donated money is being siphoned away into avoidable fees

Credit card companies, in general, take the same 1-5% off the top for credit card donations as they do for any other purchase. Some fees are being waived for Haitian donations right now, but if you're donating anywhere else using a credit card, the card companies are making money off of it. To give your intended recipient the full amount, mail them a check instead or whipping out the card.

Additionally, agencies that solicit for charities generally collect a percentage of your donation as their fee. This can be as high as 90%! If you plan to give as a result of a solicitation, find out how much money will actually end up at the charity of your choice. You can always contact the charity directly and ascertain how to send them money yourself.

2) The Organization is Legitimate

This is easier the larger the charity becomes. One of the reasons the Red Cross is such a popular recipient of donations after natural disasters is that everyone knows who they are and what they do. If you're uncertain about a charity, you can check sites like Charity Navigator and the charity section of the Better Business Bureau.

Especially in crises like Haiti, the con men (and women) come out of the woodwork. Take the time to research any charitable organization you are not already personally familiar with. The legitimate ones should be happy to send you literature, direct you to their website, and answer your questions. Don't feel pressured to send money right this minute; this is a time-honored scam technique. Real charities have on-going programs that will be able to use your donations next month as easily as this one.

3) The Organization is Efficient

People who work for non-profits need to eat too. Non-profits have to buy printer ink and toilet paper just like the rest of us. So not 100% of every dollar donated will go directly to the cause. Everyone should decide for themselves how much overhead they think is reasonable for a charity to have.

Charity Navigator and Guidestar (free registration required) can give you overhead costs for larger organizations; smaller organizations may or may not be able to provide detailed statistics, but they should be able to give you a general idea, perhaps by providing you with their latest annual report or their IRS Form 990 (for tax exempt organizations).

4) You Can Afford to Donate

This seems obvious, but especially in the heat of the moment, it is easy to rationalize giving more than is affordable. I am not immune - I often find it very difficult to keep my charitable giving within the bounds of what I have planned when confronted with the vast amount of need in the world. If you are planning to cut from one area of your budget to be able to afford a donation (for example, brown bagging your lunch instead of eating out), don't donate until after you've made the substitution and have the money in hand. Putting yourself financially underwater with charitable donations is just as painful as any other way; I promise you that your creditors won't care what you did with the money when the collection calls start.

God calls us all to be good stewards of what he gives to us, including stewardship over that category of expenses known as charitable giving. We need to have more than good intentions when we give money; we should also have reasonable assurance that the money will be used properly and efficiently. Following these steps should provide that reasonable assurance.


  1. Perfect timing!
    I'm linking to this.

  2. I didn't realize how much the cc companies skimmed off the top of donation. I feel bad enough that I'll donate with a check from now on. Your comment about donating responsibly really hits home. I struggle with the nagging doubt of whether I'm being reasonable or just plain stingy. Great post.

  3. This is excellent advice, thank you! We donated through our children's school. They had "Toonie Tuesday" yesterday (toonie is what we Canadians call our $2 coin). We talked to the kids about what happened in Haiti, the school did too, and they all decided to donate from their own allowances. We told them that whatever they decided to donate we would match. My almost 6 year old was so excited..."Mom, do you REALIZE that the gov't is matching dollar for my $2 is worth $4 for Haiti, isn't that great?" LOL.