Make sure your donation gets to the people who need it

Whether we're responding to a disaster or helping to prevent one, our generosity comes from our hearts, but ensuring that our gifts have the maximum impact possible requires using our heads.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
3 min read

Charity Navigator home page
Charity Navigator lets you search for legitimate charities in various categories and vet those you receive appeals from. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Charities bring out our best and our worst. In our desire to help people in need, we respond unselfishly. The fact is, our gifts might have greater effect if we looked at our donations as capital investments in people.

Last December's "How to make the most of your charitable contribution" described several sites that help you vet charitable organizations before you give to ensure as much of your donation as possible reaches the people who need it most. One of those sites is Charity Navigator, whose home page is shown at the top of this post.

Two countries in the midst of calamities of very different types are the Philippines, which continues to recover from the effects of Typhoon Haiyan, and Syria, where war has created millions of refugees.

Two charities with programs addressing Haiyan relief are the American Red Cross and Save the Children. The UN Refugee Agency has two sites for making online donations to help Syrian refugees: one for US residents and another for residents of other countries.

Which type of charity is most effective?
You won't find the Huffington Post's Eric Friedman making any donations for disaster relief, and not because he's particularly selfish. Friedman argues that it is more effective to give to causes that aim to prevent everyday calamities such as unsafe drinking water, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Friedman points out that in the aftermath of a disaster, it can take weeks or months to reach the people affected, so much of your donation is spent just trying to work out transportation and other logistics. Conversely, ongoing "developmental" charities have much of their operation in place, so theoretically their help is delivered more quickly and efficiently.

My thought is to give to the people who need it the most, but far be it from me to talk someone out of donating to whichever cause they choose.

If you're considering a donation to the Philippines, the Better Business Bureau offers the Top Five Mistakes to Avoid in Donating to Typhoon Haiyan Relief. The five tips boil down to "do your homework beforehand."

The US Internal Revenue Service has developed the Exempt Organizations Select Check site that lets you check the tax-exempt status and filings of charities and download the complete list of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions (so-called Pub. 78 data).

Finding worthy recipients for your generosity
Whether your goal is to help your neighbors in need or to address a particular pressing need, such as disease prevention or clean drinking water, a good place to start your search for a good cause is JustGive.org. The site lets you search for charities by keyword, by location, or by browsing its extensive list of charitable organizations.

If you'd like to start your own fund-raising organization, GoFundMe helps you create a personal donation site, publicize it, and track the donations you receive. Another site that helps you solicit online contributions for your favorite causes is Razoo, which lets you search for causes by name, keyword, or ZIP code.

The focus at the fund-raising site Causes is on creating a community of giving. You and your friends can join with others who share your charitable goals, including celebrities and public officials.

Causes community-based fundraising site
The Causes fundraising site emphasizes creating a community to enhance your charitable activities. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The Network for Good offers tools designed to make you a more effective fundraiser. Many of the organization's services are geared to businesses looking to harness the generosity of their employees and customers.

Charitybuzz gives you the opportunity to bid in online auctions for goodies contributed by celebrities and others. Among the site's current offerings are a modeling masterclass taught by Coco Rocha in New York City, and two tickets to a Saturday Night Live broadcast.

Last but definitely not least is my current favorite charity, Charity: Water, which promises to donate 100 percent of your contribution to the cause of ensuring everyone on the planet has ready access to clean drinking water.

The organization's three pillars are that private donors underwrite the charity's operations to allow all our donations to be spent on water projects; that the results of the organization's work can be located on Google Maps; and that the charity works with local partners to build and maintain its water projects.

I'll drink a glass of Christmas-cheer water to that!