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How to search for a cause

Supporting charities can be a no-brainer through sites that donate ad earnings from your Web lookups.

Admit it, efforts at Web-based philanthropy and activism can be pretty annoying. Maybe you've signed more than your fair share of chain-letter e-mail action alerts and filled out form letters to politicians for some righteous cause or other, without ever seeing any results.

However, it is possible to make real dollar donations to a favorite charity without dropping a dime, just by surfing the Web. A handful of online services will route some of their profits from Internet advertising to the tree-saving, cancer-curing, kitten-rescuing, or other group of your choice.

This approach is more convenient than remembering to visit, say, the Hunger Site every day. Yes, the Hunger Site is legitimate, as it has helped to dole out some 447 million cups of food in 74 countries, but I'm just not tempted to set it as my browser home page. A Web search portal, on the other hand, is a natural place to open your browser.

The most popular search-for-a-cause service is GoodSearch. Powered by Yahoo, it will send half its ad earnings--about a penny for each Internet lookup you make--to your pick of 37,000 nonprofit groups and schools. You can also add its toolbar to your browser. Nearly 100 new recipients are added each day, said co-founder Ken Ramberg, who hopes GoodSearch will become one of the top 10 search engines by next year. The service sent several hundred thousand dollars to various charities in 2006. Each nonprofit group receives a check at the end of the year once users have rung up at least $20 in its name.

Similarly, GoodTree had been sending half of its ad revenues from users' searches to 42 nonprofit groups. However, the "use this site to give money to charity" aspect of GoodTree will be coming to a close, founder James Currier wrote via e-mail. The staff of Ooga Labs soon will start experimenting with "other ways to make a bigger impact" with GoodTree, he said.

On the other side of the pond, EveryClick is reportedly the fastest-growing search engine in the United Kingdom. Its staff says EveryClick has earned nearly $400,000 for 170,000 charities by sending them half the gross ad earnings of each of user's Web search. Britons can also use Yahoo-based searches through MagicTaxi, which sends half of ad earnings to do-good groups. A free MagicTaxi e-mail account racks up donations for each e-mail message a user sends. And in Australia, Ripple enables Google searches that funnel all ad money to charities based in that country, somewhere between a penny to 18 cents per user search. But oops! Ripple is in beta testing and isn't fully working this week. Co-director Simon Griffiths said this should be fixed within several weeks.

On a related note, Microsoft's "I'm making a difference" program will send ad funds amassed through your use of its instant messaging app to one of 10 nonprofits of your choice. Each charity can receive a minimum of $100,000. To sign up, visit this Windows Live Messenger site.

However, it can be tricky to make heads or tails out of philanthropic Web sites, said Bennett Weiner, Chief Operating Office of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which investigates nonprofits. If you run across a new site that claims to give away cash or services for a cause, he suggests that you:

  • Look for details about how charities benefit, such as in frequent earnings and donations reports.
  • See if a service is clear about how much it gives away versus what it keeps to fund its own operations.
  • Make sure a site is clear about when it sends money to a charity.

Unfortunately, phishing and other cons that use charity as a lure are common after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, said Weiner. "The other thing is to not let these potential problems be used as a rationale for not being generous, because that would be a double tragedy." For additional legwork, Weiner recommends:

  • Visit the Web sites of the charities you want to support and help them directly. If you're planning an indirect contribution, first make sure that the nonprofit's staff knows it is listed elsewhere as a donation recipient.
  • Find details about how 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations spend their cash, via GuideStar's details from IRS 990 forms.
  • Look for details on more than 1,000 national charities at Fifty-five percent of groups evaluated there by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance meet standards above and beyond basic legal requirements in terms of governance, finances, and fund-raising.
  • To see if a charity in your state has filed papers required by some state government agencies, visit the Web site of the National Association of State Charity Officials.

(See also these planet-saving Web 2.0 tools.)