December 19, 2010

Where does charity begin?

By Lorraine Collins

This is the time of year when our mail box gets filled with catalogs and requests from charities so we have forces pulling us in two different directions. On the one hand, we are offered full color photos of exotic and glamorous things---boxes of chocolate, hams, jewelry, toys, electronic devices, furniture, clothing. Layered between the catalogs are envelopes asking us to save people in Darfur, Niger, Haiti where children are starving and homeless.

We are asked to help the people in Tibet, to try to free prisoners of conscience around the world, to send doctors to areas ravaged by flood and earthquake. We receive pleas for help from agencies providing food for the hungry and homes for the homeless. We are asked to help find a cure for cancer, for multiple sclerosis, for children with cleft palates, the blind, the paralyzed.

I'm told there are one million charities in the United States and sometimes I feel that I'm being contacted by all of them. By actual count, though, we have received requests for donations from just 23 different charities in the last three weeks. Still, that seems like quite a few. What are we to do with them all?

Some of the letters asking for our support come from famous people--Richard Gere, Meryl Streep, Tom Brokaw. One included a nice note from the Dalai Lama. Some include little gifts of things I don't need and don't want but which seem to be sent along to make me feel obligated to give at least a small donation. One charity sent me a pen and another enclosed note cards, so I'm all set for correspondence for another year. Some include actual money such as a nickel or three pennies. On a more spiritual plane, I've been sent Tibetan prayer flags and a Native American dream catcher. I've enough return address labels to last me several lifetimes.

In addition to the messages from famous people and little gifts, some charities take a more direct approach. One envelope showed a sad eyed little boy saying, "Throw me away. I'm used to it." So how could I toss that envelope in the garbage can? If we want to give money to a charity supporting children and families in dire straits, should we donate to the UN Refugee Agency, or to the International Rescue Committee, to CARE, to SOS Children's Villages, to the Children's Hunger Relief Fund, or to Oxfam? All of these agencies have asked us for money in the last few weeks.

One way to decide which charity to support is to take enough time to try to find out how efficient those charities are. How much of a donation actually goes to support the program to help people and how much is used up in administration and fund raising? There are online sources that can help us evaluate which charities are the most efficient and deliver the highest percentage of their donations to doing the actual work the charity says it's doing.

For instance, there is a website called Charity Navigator that evaluates various charities based on this sort of criteria. One charity they evaluated was "The Paralyzed Veterans of America" that rated only one of a possible four stars. Apparently a whole lot of money they receive goes to raising more money and paying executive salaries so no more than about 62% of donations they receive goes to actually helping the people they say they want to help.

Other helpful websites I found are the American  Institute of Philanthropy and the Independent Charities of America. I'm sure there are others that can tell you which charities have won awards, which are rated highly for putting most of their money to work, and which are outright scams. The AIP web site advises us to know the charity we are giving money to. One good way to do that is to give money to organizations active in our communities including food banks, homeless shelters, free clinics and local branches of charities like the Salvation Army.

Sometimes it's true that charity begins at home.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be contacted at

No comments: