I wasn’t raised in a culture of giving. My parents tithed to their church — irregularly — but I can’t recall that they ever made contributions to charity. This was probably because we were poor; we barely had enough money for our own needs!

As an adult, I have a more comfortable lifestyle than my parents did, yet my track record with charitable contributions is poor. Every year I give a little more than the previous year, but my total contributions are meager. I give money to several groups whose missions I support: the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Oregon Historical Society, and the local classical music station. These are all fine organizations, but sometimes I wonder if there aren’t more “worthy” places to send my money.

Charity Navigator
Charity Navigator bills itself as “America’s premier charity evaluator”. This site is a one-stop destination for learning how charities use the donations they receive:

Our team of professional analysts has examined tens of thousands of non-profit financial documents. As a result, we know as much about the true fiscal operations of charities as anyone. We’ve used this knowledge to develop an unbiased, objective, numbers-based rating system to assess the financial health of over 5,000 of America’s best-known charities.

Specifically, Charity Navigator’s rating system examines two broad areas of a charity’s financial health — how responsibly it functions day to day as well as how well positioned it is to sustain its programs over time. Each charity is then awarded an overall rating, ranging from zero to four stars. To help donors avoid becoming victims of mailing-list appeals, each charity’s commitment to keeping donors’ personal information confidential is assessed. The site is easily navigable by charity name, location or type of activity.

There’s a wealth of information here. You can research the charities you already support, or you can use the search tools to find new causes worthy of your donations. Available material includes:

Using Charity Navigator, I learned that the Oregon Historical Society, long one of my favorite causes, makes woefully inefficient use of its funds. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is only a little better. In fact, most of the charities to which I contribute make poor use of their money. That’s just one reason that this year I’m going to change the way I give.

Personal choices
Amanda Adams has contributed several great guest articles to Get Rich Slowly, including The Hidden Costs of Stuff and Getting Value From the Things You Own. When Amanda mentioned that she’s involved with Hypoplastic Right Hearts, an organization that helps families cope with congenital heart disease in children, I knew that’s where I wanted to send my money this year. This allows me to help somebody who has helped me. (It’s social capital in action!) And though I don’t know a lot about Hypoplastic Right Hearts, I believe my contribution will do more for that organization than it would for the Oregon Historical Society.

Aside from annual contributions to select charities and causes, I’m committed to participating in Blogathon every summer. During 2006, Get Rich Slowly readers pledged $964 to support First Book, a charity that gives children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books. I was in Ireland during this year’s Blogathon, but hope to raise more money in 2008.

For more discussion on charitable giving, check out the following:

How do you decide which charities to support? How much do you contribute? Are your charitable contributions influenced by the example your parents set when you were a child? What example do you set for your own children?

Update: In the comments, Jeff shared the following:

Having worked in the philanthropic field for over 5 years I can tell you that each charity is unique in the way that it raises money…Before you write off a charity based solely on the evaluation of their tax filings you may want to have a conversation with them to better understand how they raise their funds. You may find that the Oregon Historical Society is not such a bad charity to support after all. Cheaper is not necessarily better if efficiency and long-term viability suffer as a result.

Great point. I still plan to support my favorite causes in the future — I just wish they were a little more efficient in the way they used their funds.

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