Giving has been on my mind a lot lately. I think it mostly stems from the fact that I am working on clearing my house of clutter and things that we haven't touched in years, in an effort to make life a little easier to manage. I've also taken part in several conversations about monetary gifts; folks are feeling urged to give a little more these days, from the stories of the persecuted Christians in the Middle East, to stories about animals being rescued from the crazy winter weather the eastern half of the US has been experiencing. People have been asking "how can I help?" And that's great! But I do know that a lot of folks worry about whether giving is always effective, or if the recipients are using donations wisely. Or you might even wonder what the best way to help actually is! Here is a little advice, or guidance, if you want it.
1. Decide whom you want to help. It may sound silly at first, but there really are people out there who don't give because, to be put simply, so many people need help that they figure they can't make a difference, and therefore decide not to try. Every act of kindness helps. So how do you decide whom to help? Think about what your passions are. What do you care about most? For example, if you spent a chunk of your childhood in the hospital growing up, or were a frequent visitor because of a sick sibling, you might consider giving to a place like the Ronald McDonald House, which provides meals and a place to stay for families with children in the hospital (we have one here in Louisville because of our amazing children's hospital, Kosair's.) Small groups can volunteer to cook meals for the families staying there, or one could donate things like toys and board games to entertain the little ones staying with mom and dad in a strange city. Or, if you don't feel you have the time or the organizational skills to donate something tangible (which most of us do) you can always go with monetary donations.
Don't think that you have to limit yourself to one area of charitable giving, either. Any time a news organization shares a story about foreign aid or overseas missions, some random people who need a lot of prayer come along and comment that they feel all of the problems in the United States need to be solved before anyone else gets helped. So many are under the impression that "charity begins at home" is a Biblical concept (bull.) Think of it this way: if you saw an article about an organization that collects cat food and donations to have stray cats spayed or neutered, and also adopts some of them out, would you think "OH MY GOSH WHAT ABOUT THE DOGS. DOGS ARE IMPORTANT TOO," or would you think "that's neat that these people have such a passion for helping cats, which is important because there are so many strays out there?" Probably the latter. It's possible to care about more than one thing, and it's possible to support charities and ministries for those things! Personally, my favorite areas of giving involve children, education, empowerment for women, and animals. That doesn't mean that I don't care about cancer research or homeless veterans- I do! But my passions are for the first things, and therefore, I am best equipped to advocate for them.
2. Know your audience. This is a tricky one. Sometimes we think that it's good to just throw money or things in the direction of people needing help, and we walk away feeling good about ourselves for doing so. But what we have to give isn't always what is really needed. Do a little research (or even just some critical thinking) before you give. For an example of what I'm talking about, I have a little story to tell.
Two years ago, I participated in a Bible study based on Jen Hatmaker's book "7." A running theme in the book is simplifying our lives, and realizing that we are surrounded by an abundance of blessings- and maybe we don't need to keep all those blessings for ourselves, but could share them with others. I had the idea to use some of my spare space in my home to store some of the items that my former Bible study group members were getting rid of, when we did the part of the study that asked us to downsize our homes a little bit. The idea was to collect things like linens, small appliances, and dishes for a refugee ministry here in Louisville. We have a strangely large refugee and immigrant population (I say it's strange because we're not a major metropolis, nor are we anywhere near a border or the coasts) and this ministry welcomes them to our country by setting them up with small apartments and basic necessities, to give them a good start in America. We also collected clothing. The idea was that we'd have an organizing and distribution day, and everyone would come over and help sort everything out and get it to where it needed to go (a challenge for me, since I just had spine surgery.) What actually ended up happening was that people brought boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff, and filled up my home. My garage is full. My spare bedroom is full. Someone even came and left boxes in front of my home after I said there was no more room and the project hadn't gone as expected. Before you get too excited about the generosity of my former group members, here's the important part of the story: so much of it was just garbage. Stained bedding. Broken baskets. Shot glasses. VHS tapes recorded from television. Bizarrely themed figurines. Half empty bottles of lotion. Moldy three-ring binders. Do you think that this kind of situation- the donation of what we don't want, delivered under the guise of helping- is unique to this story? No! It happens all the time! Ask anyone who has worked for a charitable organization. Places like Goodwill or those clothing collection bins in parking lots give people the chance to "dump and run." Before you give, make sure that you're giving to help others, not to make your life better or easier by getting rid of your junk. Don't give old, scratched and dented toys to a Christmas toy drive. Don't send the weird jar of nearly expired fancy olives to your local food pantry and pat yourself on the back for helping to end hunger. Pick an organization and ask what they need. Or, if you have something that is in great condition (I'm talking no smells, stains, rips, holes, etc) take a look around online and see if you can find someone who needs it. If you're having trouble, pick a place to start with, and ask them where it could be best used.
While I am still in the process of cleaning out my garage of the abandoned junk (junk that mostly came from people I haven't been in contact with in a loooong time!) the thing that bugs me the most is food donations. Food pantries and kitchens are trying their best to provide people with the most basic necessity in life- food. So often, we are clueless as the best way to help. Many people donate canned goods that are about to expire (or have already expired) to clean them out of their own pantries. Others choose foods with no nutritious value to donate- a bottle of chocolate syrup isn't going to do a ton to help a family that is going to bed hungry! I was really appreciative when the popular website Buzzfeed posted this article around the holidays, in which they interviewed someone who actually does work for a food pantry, and compiled a list of helpful tips for what to give. It's very handy and addresses a lot of common problems food pantries deal with- and ways you can help! I have it bookmarked on my computer for easy reference!
3. Do your research. I think this one best applies to monetary donations. A lively discussion took place recently in an online group about financial accountability among charities. There are so many well-known groups that we assume are doing a great job with our funds, because how else would they become so popular? Yet a little digging often reveals that our dollars may best be donated elsewhere. For example, the Kids Wish Network brought in close to $20 million in donations in 2012. How much was actually spent on granting wishes? About $200,000. Most of the rest went to fundraisers and for-profit telemarketers. People read the description (granting wishes for seriously ill children) and assume all is well and good- but how many wishes can you really grant with that amount? Do donors know that the vast majority of the dollars they are sending are going to pay telemarketers? Probably not. I don't think that doing your research means you are stingy- it means you are a good steward of your financial blessings. Personally, I prefer only to give to organizations who spend at least 80% of donated dollars to program costs. This means that I no longer give to some organizations that I used to support, before I found out about their financial practices, but I continue to pray for them, would participate in goods drives (for example, collecting books for soldiers and their families, rather than handing over cash to one particular organization) and would also be perfectly happy to make monetary donations in the future, if they improve their spending practices.
The best resource I can recommend to you for researching charities is Charity Navigator. They provide so much information, and even have a little checklist to indicate whether certain bits of information have been disclosed (like a list of board members, or how much the CEO takes in salary.) They're great! It also doesn't hurt to just check the news for information. Goodwill is an American organization where people can donate their clothing, toys, books, and household goods. They employ people who have trouble finding jobs elsewhere, such as the disabled, veterans, and even some homeless people. And it's also good that they provide an inexpensive place to shop for people who may not be able to afford to buy new (or those who choose not to, to save money.) However, I have a huge issue with Goodwill, and right now I am trying to figure out how to deal with it. They utilize a very old loophole in federal law that allows them to pay disabled workers a tiny, tiny fraction of minimum wage. It's appalling, and right now, because of that, I'm hesitant to donate to them or shop their stores. I haven't made a final decision about it yet, because donating items there is very convenient for me (there are two or three Goodwill stores in my general area, whereas other missions and similar charities are located downtown- far away, and hard to get there.) But that's just an example of the information you might find when researching a charity.
My goal in sharing my thoughts about giving is not to discourage anyone from doing so, but to be smart about it. Be a good steward. Share your blessings with organizations who will actually help others, rather than paying their staff all the money and writing it off. And it's good to know how you can best help these people, too- like with the food bank suggestions. What are some other ways you research charities, or how do you decide how and what to give? I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions!