Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to Choose How to Help

DEBORAH CROMBIE: There has been an outpouring of charitable donations in the US in the weeks since the election. People are feeling very strongly that they want to make a difference in the country and in their communities.

But there are so many choices, so many worthwhile organizations that could use a dollar here or a few dollars there, and so many you might never have heard of! (TV host John Oliver's list got a lot of attention.) And the more you read, the more groups you learn about.

So how on earth do you choose? Where can you do the most good? Most of us have limited resources, but even Bill Gates has to pick a few causes to focus on. I was feeling more than a bit overwhelmed, I can tell you.

After some serious thinking and reading, I decided to concentrate on the organizations and causes I've supported, regularly or intermittently, over the years. They are causes that have mattered to me on many levels for a long time, and nothing about that has changed, except that giving seems more crucial than ever.

This is my list, for the moment:

--I subscribe to three print newspapers, one local and two national. While this isn't exactly a donation, it's something I feel very strongly about. Reputable journalism is an absolute must, and it mustn't be dependent solely on advertiser dollars.
--Public television and radio. Again, as above, reputable, non-partisan, independent reporting is indispensable. But so is creative, inventive, and challenging programming, both for adults and children. 
--Planned Parenthood.
--The Nature Conservancy
--Habitat for Humanity

All these organizations make a difference both locally and nationally.

On a local level, I want to do more for LIFT (Literacy Instruction for Texas) a non-profit that promotes adult literacy. (LIFT is also the designated charity for Bouchercon 2019 in Dallas.)

On an international level, we've supported Doctors without Borders for years, and will continue to do so.

We also give at Christmas to The Dallas Morning News Charities, and to the North Texas Food Bank.

The one thing I've added is a regular donation to the ACLU.

And on a nice very grass roots note, we've seen people doing a lot in our own neighborhood. One woman has set up a free food pantry in her front yard. Neighbors keep it stocked for anyone who is hungry.

REDS, have you figured out a way to choose how best you can help?

HALLIE EPHRON: In the past, I've given a percentage of my income to the same list of not-for-profits. But this year was different. My giving focuses on what I value and what I feel are under threat: free press, legal advocacy, environmental science, and women's health.

So like Debs, my list starts with subscriptions to The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The New Yorker. For legal advocacy the ACLU. For environmental science, following Lucy's sister's advice, I donated to The Union of Concerned Scientists. For women's health, Planned Parenthood. And of course my local library, PBS, the Audubon Society, and the Salvation Army.

Interesting aside. When I went to the ACLU site to donate, I looked for a mail-in form. (I like to avoid the online forms, hoping in my handwriting to make it clear that I do NOT want my contact information shared and I do not want to be called.) No form, so I emailed them and asked. It took days to get a personal response, and it began:
     "Thank you for your message to the ACLU, and for your patience, as we are currently experiencing an unprecedented volume of messages."

That came just after reading that Vanity Fair, the NY Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and and and are all having a banner year.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: As a reporter, it's not wise for me to talk about specifics--but I am having a powerful giving year. Yes, though, to Times. Post, Globe and New Yorker. And literacy groups. My last  newsletter offered a donation in each readers name to Feeding America--and as a result I sent  big check. Yay.

And I am tipping like crazy. Out of control. My favorite is to do it when the person doesn't notice where it's from. I walk away and smile, imagining the moment I'll never see.

DEBS: I love this, Hank. I'm tipping like crazy, too.

RHYS BOWEN: I have a big beef about the way charities behave. I give year round to certain charities and am deluged with begging letters from similar charities. If I've given to one Indian school then I get requests from twenty others--which must mean they all sell my info. Not right! So no more Indian schools!
At Christmas I give to Save the Children in the name of my grandkids. I give education of a girl, education of an orphan, art and music supplies for schools etc.
I give to Habitat to Humanity at Christmas too.
But year round my charities are divided between local and international. Women to Women International and Finca micro-loans. The local food bank, local Catholic Charities and local PBS station. 

DEBS: Those are some great ideas! Readers, how do you manage to make choices among all the needy causes, especially in this season of giving?


  1. We always find ourselves wishing we could do more, but there are so many needs and it’s often difficult to decide where some support would do the most good. And there’s always the appeals for natural disasters and that sort of thing . . . .
    We give to our Church, to charities for children, to Habitat for Humanity [we’ve even helped build houses]. As others have noted, we support public television and radio, the local food bank, a free clothing ministry sponsored by our Church . . . .

  2. My budget is definitely tighter since I retired this year, but the charities that I give to have been consistent for several years:
    Ottawa Food Bank (several times a year), Salvation Army thrift store (for gently used clothes), Ottawa Public Library Foundation (since I am a regular patron) and the Natural Conservancy of Canada (for their work on environmental causes both nationally and abroad).

  3. John and I are in our year-end scramble to do our charitable donations too, Debs. And we donate to all the groups you mentioned. Plus the library in Key West and the library in Madison CT.

    We also have some other smaller nature and animal favorites, like the CT Farmland Trust, which buys farms to preserve them as farmland. And Chimp Haven in Louisiana, which takes in chimps who've been used in labs and zoos etc and gives them a happy retirement. It's worth subscribing to their emails just to see the chimps! Plus the local humane society and the Conservation Ecology Centre in Great Otway, Australia, because I fell in love with them and their animals when I visited two years ago.

    And this year we did the ACLU. Although we don't agree with every stand they take, I think they will be important advocates for marginalized people in the next few years.

  4. More and more we give to local groups that do an amazing job of leveraging donations into helping make our community better.

  5. Most of above - except I do NOT subscribe so many newspapers! Barely get the two (plus New Yorker) read daily that I do subscribe to. I don't know how you ladies do it. None of my donations are gigantic (wish they could be) but I know they contribute to the overall.

    We give to our fabulous local food bank, Our Neighbor's Table, as well as the local historical societies - hey, they are some of my most important research sources. ;^) And the Friends of the Library, of course. Gotta give back.

    This year I also supported the non-profit educational farm where my son works in Puerto Rico (Plenitud), who have a new project working with low-income students to teach sustainable gardening and community growing. Grass roots.

    I love hearing about all this generosity.

  6. I also have a tight budget, but for years I have supported the Southern Poverty Law Center, for their work in identifying hate groups throughout the US and challenging them in the courts. Also Oxfam, because it is one NGO which has figured out that even in a natural disaster, the people most affected want to help themselves--their programs work in coordination with local groups. Planned Parenthood, because they need all the help they can get with all the mis-information targeting their services. And Amnesty International, because we all need a candle of hope. The Carter Foundation, for their work and success in targeting specific diseases for eradication. Locally, the Salvation Army, my library, and food pantries.

  7. Many years ago, I read an article in the paper that said you can't give to everything and you shouldn't try or feel guilty. Pick charities based on what's important to you and focus your efforts.

    We've had to trim and change our list over the past year. We don't give to any charity that spends greater than 10% on administrative costs and I've started to pay attention to how much a charity spends to raise $1 (another measure of efficiency). Charity Navigator has been essential. I stumbled across one I used to give to that spends $0.54 to raise $1. Not good.

    We give to our alma mater universities - the general fund which is used to provide financial aid for students. We support several Catholic-church-based charities. St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. We adopted a child through - oh gosh, they just changed their name and I'm blanking on it. Cancer research, especially brain and breast cancer (although we're going to have to figure out a new organization since Komen has been out of control for years and the American Cancer Society is also iffy on spending).

    And then there are all the little things that crop up through the year through the kids' schools.

  8. Coincidentally, today is the day I apportion donations for the pile of solicitations I've been saving up.

    We've always supported public radio and TV; it's our main source of information and quality entertainment, and I feel strongly about it, especially the radio part. I've traveled across the country by car, and have found that a disproportionate amount of the country gets their political slant through talk radio, which slants extremely to the right. NPR, PRI, MPR, et al provide a much more balanced viewpoint, and without yelling.

    We also support local and national conservation agencies and park areas. Steve's family has a long history in this area, as their whole careers/lives have been spent in wildlife education in one form or another, and it's something we all have a passion about.

    Since our two youngest daughters both got full, four-year academic scholarships, we send their alma maters a nice donation every year, out of gratitude. Both schools have scholarship programs that we specify for our donations; the Citadel's is one our youngest daughter set up to promote and encourage women cadets.

    And this year we have also started paying for online news. My husband has long read the NY Times, but he's also a fan of the LA Times, as well, and since we both use Wikipedia he donates to that cause, as well. We only recently let our 20-year subscription to the New Yorker lapse, but I really miss it and will probably resubscribe.

    One of my favorite causes, one that's dear to me since childhood, is the Little Sisters of the Poor. They do amazing things, and since the order is one of extreme poverty themselves, every amount they receive goes to some kind of good, and usually locally.

    Finally, I've stopped donating things to Goodwill and instead choose to take my gently used castoffs to St. Vincent de Paul. They will also accept food, which they actually distribute to the needy.

  9. Washington Post and NYT, of course - but I can't get print so I subscribe online. Then there are the health charities American Cancer Society's Relay for Life, and the Leukemia Society. Animals, that goes without saying--but on the local level to my local Humane Society here in LaBelle, FL, and I give to a charity in Miami, Police Officers' Assistance Fund. It benefits the families of officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty. I give to others, of course, but those are the annuals.

  10. Full disclosure here, I work for the Boy Scouts, directly in fundraising. But we were big supporters of Scouting even before I worked there, as we were already very familiar with the good work they do, especially in outreach to inner city and impoverished rural youth who would otherwise not have the opportunity to participate in this type of after-school activity.

    Otherwise, we support several Catholic-church-based charities as well, including the St. Vincent de Paul Society. And our local public radio station and food bank. We subscribe to the local newspaper, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, but until this discussion had never viewed them as part of the discussion of our charitable giving.

  11. This year our charity of choice is the Louisiana Flood Victums Fund. I know several families in and around Baton Rouge whose homes flooded earlier in the year.

  12. Ditto on the newspapers, and as long as I have been giving, I've been giving to Planned Parenthood and the Brady Campaign. I've recently added Everytown for Gun Safety and Sandy Hook Promise to that list. I donate to the schools that have educated me, and I've added local organizations to my list. In Seattle, there's a non-profit called Treehouse that offers support and services to youth in foster care, and the Pike Market Senior Center helps seniors who are homeless and hungry.

    I also do one off donations (nothing huge, but every little bit helps) in the wake of natural and man-made disasters. Last week, I contributed to Together Rising to support their work in Aleppo.

  13. Thank you all for your comments AND your generosity. And so interesting to see how people choose what is important to them. There are organizations I've never heard of, and Flora, I didn't know that Oxfam did such a great job. Thanks for sharing that.

    And, Mary, thanks for mentioning Charity Navigator--a great resource.

    Karen, we've stopped giving things to Goodwill, too. We save our gently worn things for our housekeeper and her crew, or for our local women's shelter.

    I am heartened by our readers caring and goodwill, and that is a good thing going into the new year!

  14. PS: Our local supermarket does a great thing. They stock brown grocery bags with staples. You can buy one (or many!) of these for $5 each, which the store then donates to our local food bank. Yay, Brookshire's/Super 1!


  15. Many years ago I stated donating to Habitat for Humanity and I've never stopped.

    I help cook a meal every month for our local homeless shelter. This is one of the many things our local Democrats do, and have done for many years. I'm honored to be a part of such a generous,hard working group.

    We give heavily to our local food bank, which also accepts toiletries of the sort we might not normally think of to give - toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, etc. And socks! they always need socks.

    And I pass my gently used clothing along to our local women's shelter.

    We keep a supply of things on hand for local emergencies. A lot of people here still have woodstoves as their only heat source and as you might suspect, there are a lot of fires. So when we see things like towels, sheets, blankets on sale, we grab them to keep on hand.

    I used to do volunteer work for the literacy association, but have let that slip some - may be tie to get back to that.

    The ACLU.

  16. Tell me about Goodwill? Why do you avoid...? This is perfect timing...

    And Debs, our grocery does that, too, but I always over-analyze the math, and then don't do it. Hmm.

  17. This year, I've had a very personal cause to which I've donated through various channels. My beautiful sister-in-law was diagnosed with liver cancer this fall, so I have given to fund-raisers, including an online auction. While it's gratifying in a sense to see that my money is going to a cause dearest to my heart, it is a cause that I wish I had never had to champion. Cancer is a terrible, non-discriminatory heartache. I am looking to donate to a nation-wide cancer site, too.

    I've donated to Planned Parenthood recently, and a dear friend donated to the ACLU in my name. What a great idea for Christmas, donating in a friend's name. I give to St. Jude's whenever I buy something and it's a place accepting donations during the purchase process. I did a big pantry clean-out in November and donated food through a local food-drive. Oh, and I did subscribe once again to Vanity Fair, couldn't resist. Hank and Debs, I'm tipping especially heavy right now, too.

    I'm glad that this post was here today, as it makes me realize that I have a few more donations to make. One will be to either the local animal shelter or another animal rescue place.

  18. Hank, here's a little summary on Goodwill:

    They are a non-profit (!!!) which make 5 billion a year in revenue, and pays their disabled employees much less than minimum wage, for starters.

  19. Kathy, so sorry to hear that about your sister-in-law.

    And thanks for reminding me to add something for animal rescue. (Gigi Norwood, nag me for All Border Collie Rescue:-))

  20. We raise foster puppies to become future service dogs. We raised five dogs for Paws With A Cause and are currently raising our third puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind. We also help with fundraisers whenever we can. This may not be a monetary contribution as such, but it will make all the difference in the world for someone who is visually impaired. Our first Leader Dog was selected to be a breeding stock mom and just had her second litter of puppies on December 17; instead of helping one person, our dog has the potential to help several people through her puppies. Our second dog was assigned to a client who lives in Argentina, and we were able to meet her before she and the dog went home. Our third dog is still with us; he'll go back to "college" in April, and then we hope to receive our next pup and start all over!

  21. We also gave up donating to Good Will and switch to St. Vincent de Paul years ago.

    It's not necessarily bad that a non-profit makes money, but when you start digging into the numbers and balanced profit to executive pay to average worker pay to benefits, Good Will definitely doesn't come out looking, er, good.

  22. Kathy, so sorry to hear about your sister-in-law . . .

  23. Thanks for bringing this up, Debs. I'm a huge believer in shopping and giving locally -- so much more stays in the community -- but this year, I've been torn a bit: I suspect that some shop owners in the valley don't share my political or social views, so do I support the local economy, or spend my dollars with a national corporation that appears to be a good citizen?

    Similarly, we usually keep our giving local because the small amounts we can contribute make a huge impact here. We always contribute to MT NPR and MT PBS, and get a Wash Post online subscription with our print subscription to the Missoulian. I chose to add a donation to the Last Best News this year -- it's an online newspaper focused on MT issues -- b/c good quality reporting is critical, now more than ever. (It's also based in Billings, where I grew up and where the WIP is set, so it's useful for research!) We also give to the local food bank and Energy Share, which provides heating assistance in MT. And for Christmas, I bought my mother a teacher's desk at the new Catholic grade school being built in Billings -- she was a major volunteer in the parish for ages, and she'll get a kick out of it!

    I also bought a share in the new co-op bookstore in Billings -- as a former teenage bookseller, I've always wanted to own a bookstore! And we need them, too.

    And I know we'll be making a contribution to the Flathead Valley Spay & Neuter Task Force or Flathead County Animal Shelter when we pick out our Christmas kitty!

  24. Goodwill has a number of stores in my area; when the boys were little (they're the last of the line--no other cousins to pass on the out-grown clothing), we gave regularly to the local Goodwill. I have also shopped at Goodwill for field clothes, etc., but I noticed years ago that what people were donating didn't often end up on the racks in the store. Someone's son worked at another Goodwill and confirmed that the best items never made it into the store. So, I found another place to take used clothing.

  25. I divide the seasonal requests into 3 piles, roughly: very local ( like Meals on Wheels, NY Times Neediest Fund), women and children, and social issues. I haven't done this year yet, but it will be similar. I often use Charity Navigator to make sure the money will be well used. After the election, I made sure membership in ACLU, SPLC and Anti-Defamation League were current. Planned Parenthood monthly. I was so horrified by the news from Aleppo I sent money to both UNICEF and Red Cross Syria relief funds. NY Times, New Yorker, public tv and radio-those are ongoing sources of pleasure and information and I don't even think of them as donations. And I might add Vanity Fair this year.I am taking a break from political donations for a bit.Wearable clothes go to my housekeeper who puts them to very good use.

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  27. I decided several years ago that giving regularly throughout the year was better for me than the "year end" giving. I was less financially stable then and could mange $5 or $10 every month or so, but not $70 or $120 in a lump. And, now, that I have more financial resources, I've continued the practice...usually paying quarterly to a local organizations. I don't count my KNKX (Npr) as "charitable" giving (except on my taxes) nor my online NYT subscription...they are valuable resources that need to be subscribed to and KNKX is my "life line" to broadcast jazz programming via the internet.
    Gently used clothing and household items go to the church thrift shop which sells "better" on ebay quite profitably.
    We are blessed to be able to give so much in so many places.
    Peace and blessings now and in the years to come to all,of you.

  28. Consider dropping off a few bucks at your neighborhood school, paying off some outstanding lunch accounts. The school will know which families need this the most. Any amount helps.

  29. We support our church year round with tithes. Then we also give regularly to World Vision and Doctors Without Borders. My husband likes to support Southern Poverty Law center. Then we also give to our local homeless shelter when we hear that they have special needs. Every year at this time, my office adopts a family that is struggling to make sure that the family (especially the children) have a good Christmas.

    I hate that so many organizations sell their mailing lists and have pretty much stopped giving to any that do that (when I discover it).

  30. I agree that you can't give to everyone all the time, so you should pick your priorities. You can make a bigger difference over a lifetime supporting one cause with larger gifts than if you spread that money over many causes in smaller amounts. I've given to The Nature Conservancy for years, because I saw what they did to preserve the forest and prairie land in my native Missouri. I also give to NPR, and subscribe to several papers because I support real reporting. My main interest, however, is arts education, because I've seen what a difference it can make in young people's lives. Whether it's a writing program, or the high school band, the arts can give kids from any background a voice, a family, and the confidence to express themselves. I also support animal rescue, because lost animals have always shown up on my doorstep, and because I know what a critical role animals have played in my own life when everything else was swirling down the drain. When I can't give money, I give time, mentoring students and fostering dogs. And yes, Debs, I'll definitely remind you about All Border Collie Rescue. In fact, come over this weekend and meet my temporary foster dog, Dash!