Research shows that Americans are among the most generous – if not the most generous – people in the world. Here’s how to make a real difference, no matter what’s in your bank account.
December 8, 2019
In October, the Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation released its World Giving Index, a ranking of how generous people in 128 different countries were over the past ten years. Interviewers asked 1.3 million people around the world whether they had, in the past 30 days, helped a stranger, donated to charity, or volunteered their time with an organization. Which nation came in first? The United States.
Americans have a long tradition of philanthropy. What most other nations accomplish through central government or leadership by elite groups, the United States has often accomplished through charity and volunteerism. In his 1840 book “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries…and in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”
As we head into the end-of-year giving season, many Americans are focused on how to best use their talents and resources to make a positive impact on their communities, nation, and the world. Here’s how you can do the most good with what you’ve got:
Donate Money – But Choose Wisely
Just because a non-profit organization has its heart in the right place doesn’t mean it can effectively help the people it’s trying to serve. All kinds of organizations – big and small, urban and rural, secular and faith-based – do incredible work, but some are inefficient, and some are even unethical.
The non-profit Charity Navigator is a fantastic resource if you’re looking to better understand how an organization will use your donation. Charity Navigator evaluates a group’s financial health (how well it has sustained its programs over time) and its commitment to accountability and transparency, then gives it a score between one and four stars. A four-star organization is one that will put your dollars to work smartly and can demonstrate that it deserves your trust. Charity Navigator also offers a handy watch list that flags serious problems, like fraud or other ethical lapses.
Once you’ve decided where you want to give, think about the way you’ll actually transmit your donation. For example, credit card companies and online donation platforms attach fees to their transactions, which means that a small portion of your donation will go to them rather than to the charity. NerdWallet has a breakdown of the fees various companies and platforms charge.
For non-profit organizations that are singularly focused on the people they serve, spending money on shiny websites, marketing campaigns, or human resources consultants is out of the question. That’s where the Taproot Foundation comes in. Through Taproot, professionals with expertise in web design, public relations, strategic planning, and other areas can offer their time at no charge to organizations that can’t afford it. One volunteer, a human resources expert, says she dug in with an organization that provides legal services to low- and moderate-income families, and helped them build a long-term strategy for staffing and leadership.
Of course, you don’t have to be an accountant or a graphic designer to volunteer your time. Organizations need help of every kind, whether you want to swing a hammer or read to a child. All for Good and Volunteer Match are two time-tested websites that can help you find the right volunteer opportunity for your skills and interests.
Another way to move the needle is by amplifying messages you think your community needs to hear. That’s the idea behind DoSomething.org, a website that makes it simple to get involved in a cause that matters to you. In seconds, DoSomething.org can serve up an anti-vaping resource for teenagers to share on social media, a guide to writing letters to deployed members of the military, and language to use when you talk to your elected officials about stopping gun violence.
Finally, if you’re in need of some inspiration, The New York Times’ “Fixes” column is a great place to learn about innovative approaches to serious problems. It’s okay to start with something simple, as well. Don’t assume, for example, that the most strenuous giving option is always best. Forms of giving that involve significant sacrifice and effort, such as running marathons or taking the ice-bucket challenge, don’t necessarily make the biggest impact.
Then, get ready to give. Our nation’s founders were some of the original volunteers, and their idea that ordinary people could work together for the benefit of their communities forms a basic foundation of our society today.
Smart Giving: What’s a donor-advised fund and should you use one? How should you plan your giving for the year? This guide is for any individual, corporation, or foundation that wants to make a charitable gift – via National Philanthropic Trust
Watch Out: For a detailed look at the charitable institution of your choice, this website creates metrics like how much money an organization spends to raise $100 and how much of its fundraising is spent on programming – via Charity Watchdog
National Service: The co-founder of City Year has been a long-time advocate for national service, where every young person spends a year performing community service, perhaps through a civilian version of the GI Bill – via Huffington Post
Disaster Aid: Charitable giving often spikes after natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, but not all aid is equal for the people affected (for example, donating money is more efficient than donating items like food and clothing). One expert offers some tips – via The Conversation
Voluntourism: Thousands of Americans each year spend time in developing countries in the name of volunteerism. Are they doing any good? Or worse, are they doing harm? – via The Washington Post
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This article originally appeared in the December 8, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
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