Wednesday, 18 April 2012

How to Make Sure You're Giving to the Right Charity

While self-improvement is all very well and good - no, great - it can often be seen from the outside as selfish. Well - I won't stand for that. Oh, no, with my life coaching! I encourage people to be conscientious, compassionate and well-informed about the world they're living in, while being smart about their own feelings and lifestyle at the same time. This is internal and external healing, people. I just don't believe that this world will improve if we are all wrapped in bubbles of egotism - so, while you're working on being true to yourself and creating your kick-ass life, take a look out at the world and think about what you can do to make it a little bit better. 

The first thing that came to my mind when I thought "helping others" was giving to charity, so that's what this entry is about! Whatever the reasons, whatever the circumstances - a phone plea, a charity raffle, a monthly subscription or attending a fundraiser - I'm sure that most of us have given some money to charity at some point or other. But how often do you do it? And what stops you from doing more of it?

One of the reasons I hear for not giving to charity is "I don't know where the money is going". I was especially surprised to hear this in Japan, after the March '11 earthquake, coming from some of my Japanese friends and co-workers - while millions of expats and overseas observers sent their donations in. It seems that donating to charity isn't as big a part of Japanese culture as it is over here, and knowing where they money goes is part of this.
After I heard reports of government money earmarked for tsunami victims being spent instead on whaling and whispers of donated Red Cross money intended for the victims being distributed to a number of other causes* I started to understand where they're coming from. But it isn't the only place where scepticism stops people from donating.

On top of this uncertainty, you need only type "charity scam" into a news search engine to read about hundreds of fake charities taking the money of unsuspecting, well-meaning people. I hardly need to tell you what I think of people who would exploit the compassion of others to make a quick buck; and while those of us who are used to deleting e-mail scams nearly every day would probably feel a little suspicious of e-mails, letters or visits from charities that we had never heard of, nobody likes to believe that they are gullible. So, when a scam company uses a reputable name, like Oxfam, what are we supposed to think (read about the Oxfam scam here)? 

For big companies, giving money to charity offers various benefits - publicity, a good reputation, tax benefits. But for some of us, the benefit is a feeling of having done something good, of having helped to make the world a better place in some way. Not everybody can easily afford to spare money to give to a good cause, so when you do reach into your wallet, you definitely want to make sure that you can trust the person cashing your cheque and that the money is really going to help somebody. And who can blame you? For a great number of people, giving to charity is one of the main ways in which we can know we're contributing to the world. There will always be cynics who say that it is a waste of time, that all charities are scams or that your money is doing more harm than good, but if you take time to make sure you know where your money is going, you can sit back and have peace of mind. If nobody else has told you - I want to tell you that you are a good person. You want to make the world a better place, and I admire you. So, without further ado, here's my quick list of things to do before you shell over the cash.

1) Choose a cause you feel passionately about - people might tell you that there are some causes more worthy than others. Negative personalities might criticise you for donating to an art program when there are children starving in Africa, but the cause that you donate to is up to you. Perhaps you know somebody affected by a certain condition, and would like to donate to research into cures or improving their way of life. You might like to visibly see the difference that your money makes, in which case charities like See the Difference or local groups (churches, schools, shelters) might be a good option. Whatever you choose, that warm, fuzzy feeling you get from helping others will be greater if it's something that you really care about and want to change.

2) Make sure it's not a scam! - Before you fork over the credit card details, it's wise to do a little research into the company. Are they a registered charity? You can check the Charity Commission for England and Wales, Better Business Bureau (US) or your country's equivalent to verify them. Does the address they gave you match up to the registered one? Are there any warnings online about the company? Remember, even when it's a name you think you know, there could be somebody out there conniving enough to falsely use that name and logo to lead you into handing over money. If you receive e-mails and letters, cross-reference the names and addresses. If you're approached on the street by people wanting you to sign up to direct debit donations, check their credentials (I generally don't feel comfortable handing over such details on the street, but that's up to you). Check websites like Safe from Scams and search engines to make sure the charity you're considered is legitimate.

3) Make sure you're happy with where your money is going - *of course, even if you donate to a charity with a specific cause of theirs in mind, they will distribute their money as they deem appropriate. This is usually made clear on the charity website, although I've spoken to a few people who have been surprised or annoyed by this. If, for some reason, you object to some of a charity's projects while supporting others, you might feel more comfortable finding one that only carries out work that you approve of - charities need to distribute money to all of their causes as and when they need it, and can't neglect one cause for a more "popular" one.

Another worry is that the charity will spend most of your money on administration, paying its staff and other projects, while only a small percentage will go to the people who need it. You can check a charity's accountability when finding out if they are legit or not - a charity should be transparent in their accounts (as a matter of law or of good business ethics, depending on the country of operation). Oxfam, for example, give a general idea of where your money goes on their website, with the actual annual reports (we hope!) published on there too, for those who are committed enough to trawl through numbers. And, of course, look for the word non-profit!

4) Check their rating on Philanthropedia - this nice website rates non-profit organisations by how much actual good work they're doing. After all, there are small-time charities out there trying to make a big difference, but we only hear about the big ones, those already receiving enough donations to give big. Just because one charity is spending more money than another does not necessarily mean that it is less deserving of your donation! This is also a great way to find out about causes, if you are having a hard time deciding where to donate.

5) Get involved! - one way to really know that you're making a difference is to volunteer your own time and energy. Of course, this isn't a viable option for everyone, but volunteering is a great way to meet new people, gain great experience for your CV/resume and really see the difference you're making. If you know - and trust - somebody who volunteers, you could always ask them to make sure your money goes to a good place! After the Japan earthquake/tsunami, I gave money to a friend who was driving up to help them build hot showers at the shelters. I felt that my money would be accounted for and might go further than if I had donated to a charity. If you do want to volunteer, ask your local charities how you can help out; or if you'd like to combine volunteering with travel there are a load of "voluntourism" groups - just research them before committing, as a lot of them ask for a huge amount of money. I personally like to browse Ecoteer, where you are only asked to pay for your room and board (usually around £20 a week). 

So, what are you waiting for? You're armed with knowledge, links and lots of lovely charities to choose from. This week, instead of going out drinking, why not give a little to a charity of your choice? You can at least try the warm, fuzzy feeling on for size and see what it does for you! 

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