You’ve been stuck at home for most of the past year. You’ve been venting your spleen by typing away madly on social media trying to litigate one way or the other that your candidate is the nation’s savior and the other one is the devil incarnate. You’ve shared endless comments, posts and memes about every political, social, and economic ill facing the nation. You’ve read and responded to an endless number of online articles, commentaries and opinion pieces. You’ve aired every one of your grievances through your typed messages knowing that the causes of your woes are likely to continue unabated. You’ve spent so much time at your keyboard that your fingers ache and you’ve become a prime candidate for carpal tunnel syndrome.
And what has it all accomplished? Precious little. And I should know because like many of you, I, too, have spent countless hours in front of a screen and keyboard doing all of this and more. Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Well you know what they say about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.
So may I suggest that as we begin the countdown to the end of the year it might be a better use of our time and our sense of social commitment and responsibility to think how to make better use of the technology that is in your hands or before you on your desk or kitchen table. That keyboard has the ability to actually change lives and deliver vital services to the most needy among us. Your keyboard is one of the most powerful devices for positive change you have and you don’t have to use it to support or condemn a candidate, a political party, an elected official, or a public policy.
Instead, with a few simple keystrokes you can deliver food to those who are hungry. You can provide essential human services to the lonely elderly or young people in need of a loving home or a supportive friend or mentor. You can help countless people suffering from devastating and often life-threatening diseases and help advance the research that will prevent others from being afflicted by those same illness or conditions. You can help those devastated by natural disasters to resume some semblance of normality even after losing everything they own. You can help ensure that the cultural and educational institutions that enrich the community are supported and sustained. You can help abused women, children and yes, even animals. You can help faith communities or secular organizations. Local, national or international causes. Small grassroots groups or mega-charities. There is virtually nothing you can’t do with some thoughtful planning and careful choices and a few keystrokes. Imagine all the good you can do with a few taps on that keyboard in front of you. And all you have to do is to spend some time considering how you can give by giving wisely.
But before you click on all of those DONATE NOW buttons on the websites of charities you think you know about slow your inclination to do good by ensuring that you do well. Spend at least a portion of the time peeking behind the curtain of charities you think you know. You deserve to devote a portion of the time researching a charity as you do when you are deciding on which smartphone you’re ready to buy.
So what should you be looking for and how do you make an informed decision about where your charitable dollars should go? At the risk of oversimplifying this, don’t select charities based on how successful their advertising and public relations efforts are. Pay less attention to what they are saying about themselves and more time looking at what others in the know say about them. Try to assess for yourself the extent to which a charity is efficient with the monies entrusted to them, effective and relevant in carrying out their mission, and most importantly deciding for yourself if they are positively impacting those they exist to serve and improving the quality of life for individuals and the community.
With 1.8 million 501c3 charitable organizations in the U.S. there is no shortage of choices. But being a strategic donor can be a bit overwhelming. So where does one start.
We all receive more solicitations than we can count. Some come through traditional envelopes delivered by our postal carriers. Some reach us electronically by email or various social media platforms. Some by telephone calls. And still others are from friends, colleagues or family. Whether welcome or not each of those requests for support are initiated by others in the hope that we will give for the first time or renew our past support. And each will be dealt with either by a positive response, a polite “no” or “not at this time”, and most will simply be ignored.
But the real question is how do we know which causes are not just worthy but which ones merit our support? How do we go about vetting the charities which seek our financial support? How do we know if they are effective, efficient and impactful? Where can we turn for help to make informed decisions about how to distribute our limited amount of money to benefit charitable organizations that align with our interests, priorities and values?
There are resources available to assist us in making well informed decisions. In the same way many choose a physician we can depend on the suggestions and recommendations of those we trust. We can also do our own research in the same way we use apps like Yelp to read reviews about a restaurant we’d like to try.
There are many research sites to consider but two of the best are GuideStar and Charity Navigator.
GuideStar (www.guidestar.org) is the largest source of information about nonprofit organizations. Their website includes Form 990’s for virtually all U.S.-based charities. The 990 is the Internal Revenue Service’s form that provides the public with comprehensive financial information and other very important information about a nonprofit organization. GuideStar allows you the deepest dive you can take into a charity’s data by examining their Form 990. The mandated annual report contains detailed financial information about the sources of income and the expenditures made for programs and services and other expense areas such as compensation for top salaried executives. The 990 contains a wealth of other information that will help to objectively evaluate a 501c3 organization. NOTE: You will need to register on the GuideStar website but access to the most current Form 990’s is free of charge.
Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) is the largest and most-utilized charity evaluator in America. The organization helps guide intelligent giving by evaluating the Financial Health, Accountability and Transparency of over 9,000 charities and provides basic data on the rest of the 1.8 million U.S. nonprofits.
So while you are sitting at your computer grazing through endless partisan posts, political memes and cute cat photos, pause and think about ways that piece of technology can do some real good. Think about which organizations you’d like to consider helping. Go to their website. Learn more about them in their own words. Go to an independent source and look at the data. And when you are satisfied that you have one or more choices go back to the websites of those charities and find that ever present button, link or tab that may say DONATE or HOW YOU CAN HELP where you will find easy instructions about how to make a contribution. And even if you are not able to donate money most organizations will welcome your willingness to volunteer your time to help in hands on ways. As the old saying goes, consider giving of your time, treasure or talent to help those organizations which are helping the community in so many ways.
If you have questions about the way a nonprofit operates do not hesitate to pick up the phone and ask them for additional information and answers to your questions. Charitable organizations, while managed by professional staff and led by volunteer board members are not owned by anyone. They exist as a public trust and as such they are fully accountable to the public and should be totally transparent. If an organization dodges your questions or if you feel like they are spinning their responses than find another organization more worthy of your support.
I know you’re not likely to stop using your computer to kvetch or whine about this or that. I know I won’t. But maybe, just maybe, consider taking a pause from all of the online hand wringing and try to do something good with that keyboard. I promise it will do good for others. And I know it will feel good to you.
The famed 19th Century industrialist and mega-donor said: “Philanthropy should aim to do real and permanent good in this world.” We can’t all be Carnegies. Few of us have the kind of wealth that allows us to make the kind of contribution that will change the world. But we all have the ability to combine our gifts with those of others of good faith to change the lives of others even if only one life at time.
In the words of Mother Theresa: “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.” And finally in the words of Anne Frank: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
So give, but give wisely. Give now. Give often. Give until it helps. And try using that keyboard to create the ripples that will start to improve the world.