Ten Great Charities that Deserve Your Dollars This Year

by Catherine Shaffer on 25 March 2009 24 comments

These are difficult economic times, but I'm getting tired of being told to spend my money on stuff, as if my personal saving habits are somehow ruining the economy. I'm no economist, and maybe I'm full of crap, but it seems to me that when I save money by putting it in a bank account or investing it in stocks via my retirement plan, I am directly addressing the core problem of the economy right now--liquidity--in a much more direct way than if I were to go to the dollar store and stock up on easter decorations that I don't want anyway. I have a different proposition. Instead of throwing money at retailers, let's throw it at people who really need it--the poor and disenfranchised who are most at risk in an economic downturn. Here are my top ten charity picks. I'd love to know what your favorites are, and will post a followup in a week or so with an updated list of recommended charities.  [Update: and now there are ten!]

1. The Carter Center

This is an amazing organization founded by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter with a unique mission. Many of us are ardent supporters of disease foundations that seek to find a cure for a devastating disease such as cancer. The Carter Foundation seeks to bring known cures for terrible diseases to third world nations that cannot afford them. The Carter foundation is currently campaigning to eradicate guinea worm, a painful and dangerous parasitic infection, from the world. Guinea worm is easily prevented by filtering drinking water. However, many countries in Africa have been too poor to distribute simple coffee filters so that people can remove the worm larvae from their drinking water. The Carter foundation has made an amazing difference in saving millions of people from guinea worm at a cost of pennies per person. This is a very powerful use of your dollars, and if you have just a few dollars to donate, this is the charity that will stretch those dollars the most. The Carter Center has a five star rating on Charity Navigator, with a high percentage of donation going to actual program expenses.

2. Christian Foundation for Children and Aging

This is a child sponsorship charity with which I've had an amazingly good experience. For $30 a month, I sponsor a child to receive assistance through the foundation. Assistance includes education and basic needs. I am able to correspond with the child, and we have exchanged many letters and photos. CCFA gives you the option to choose a young child, an older child, or an elderly person to receive assistance, or you can choose the person most in need. I took the last option, and I promptly received a packet describing a child named Luis in Guatamala. I really wish I could publish the series of three pictures I received from the foundation, but that would not be considerate of his privacy. Luis was about 12, and in the first picture he looked very small for his age, was wearing ill-fitting clothes, and looked thoroughly miserable. A year later, I had a picture of a very handsome young man with a bright smile. Luis sends me wonderful letters which he always illustrates with colored pencil drawings. I am very proud of him, and I hope to one day take advantage of the CCFA travel program, which provides very reasonable accommodations for a visit with your sponsored child. Because of the differential in cost of living between the US and Guatamala, I am able to make a huge difference in one child's life while making a small sacrifice in my own. In fact, it's kind of embarassing, the gratitude that he has expressed, considering that $30 is an amount I can easily spend on nothing. CCFA also gets five stars on Charity Navigator.

3. American Red Cross

The Red Cross gets only two stars from charity navigator, indicating they need improvement in efficiency. Still, there's no other organization with the scope and vision of the Red Cross, and they are the only place you can donate blood instead of money. If you are able, consider giving at least a pint of blood to the red cross. The Red Cross does a great deal of disaster relief work. When my family was on vacation in Michigan's upper peninsula, in 2007, a major forest fire started within a few miles of our campground. We were not affected, but as it turned out, the Red Cross set up a tent with relief supplies near the firefighter's headquarters. Maybe they aren't the most efficienty charity working in this space, but I didn't see any other charities showing up at Four Corners crossings in da UP to offer relief to people who may be injured or displaced. I believe in this organization and will continue to support it. Some day, if my life calms down enough, I hope to become a trained Red Cross disaster volunteer in my community. (I looked at the training courses recently and sadly am not able to attend.)

4. International Committee of the Red Cross

This organization is doing critical relief work around the world. Right now, as we speak, there is a horrifying situation in Sri Lanka with tens of thousands of people trapped in a very small area, caught in cross fire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. the ICRC is the only aid organization with any access at all to this region, so if youw ant to help, this is the place to send your dollars. This is a terrible situation. News media have not been allowed in, but there are reports that people are using sheets of plastic for shelter and that bombs are falling among the crowds. These are people who are going to need immediate and comprehensive assistance as soon as they can be extracted from the situation.

5. Habitat for Humanity

What can you say about Habitat? Great charity, doing great work. They don't just give away houses, they  make people work their butts off for them. This is a charity that strengthens communities, puts people in homes, and doesn't wreck the economy while doing it. They deserve your support.

6. Doernbecher Children's Hospital Foundation

I was going to recommend St. Jude Children's Hospital, but when I did some research, they seemed to have an unacceptably high overhead as opposed to the amount of donations that actually go to research and helping people. Instead, consider Doernbecher, which has a similar mission, and a five star rating on charity navigator.

7. American Near East Refugee Aid

This is an organization helping another trapped group of people--civilians in Gaza. I have a solicitation from them right here in my incoming mail box, and after looking them up online, I feel very comfortable sending a contribution.

8. Your local church, department of human services, or animal shelter

There are some needs that are best addressed locally. Consider contributions to your church or your local animal shelter. (Do not contribute to the HSUS until you have researched the organization. You may not agree with their goals or tactics, and they are not normally affiliated with the "humane society" in your town.) Also check with your state government or county human services department about organizations that help foster children. Foster children are some of the most needy, most disenfranchised people in our society. Often there are not enough beds in foster homes for them, so they live in unstable, crowded conditions. Children who have not been abused when they enter care often end up being abused by the time they leave care, and due to frequent moves between homes, they have a hard time holding onto possessions. Many small charities collect money to purchase simple things like suitcases and Christmas presents for foster children. Children aging out of the foster system need a lot of help getting started in life, as well, and in this economy, it's not as easy for them to find jobs, much less go to college. You might also consider becoming a foster parent. It's not for everyone, but there is such a great need, and most people find it very rewarding.

9. Sanford Health, South Dakota

This isn't actually a recommendation for a place to donate your money, since they don't seem to be actively soliciting donations. Instead, I want to share with you this story of Denny Sanford's $400 million gift to Sioux Falls Health System. Unlike many philanthropists, Sanford did not dictate the research mission of the hospital when he made the gift. Instead, he solicited proposals from scientists for a project that would completely cure a disease within his remaining life span. He's kind of old, so it's going to be a horse race! The process was judged by scientists, and the winner was type I diabetes. Research at Sanford Health will focus on curing Type I diabetes through beta cell regeneration, as quickly as possible. I mention it here in case anyone has a significant gift or bequest and may be interested in joining Sanford in this mission, or perhaps using Sanford's process to start their own research institution or foundation! This is philanthropy done right. [Update: You CAN contribute to Sanford Health. Go to www.sanfordproject.com and click on "Make a Gift Online."]

 

10. Doctors without Borders

Thanks to the commentors, I can now complete my list of ten, which I started and got stuck at number nine. (Math and blogging don't mix for me.) This is another charity that introduces itself. Nobel-prize winning, courageous, important. I am a supporter and I hope you will be, too.

Now, go! Make a leap of faith. Give your money away, and it will return to you tenfold, or so the saying goes. With an ROI like that, we can have 1000% growth in our economy in no time. What are your favorite charities? What are the best? The worst?

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Guest's picture
kylydia

The CFCA sounds very intriguing to me, but I'm wondering how much evangelizing is paid for with donated dollars. What has your experience been?

Guest's picture
Guest

Here's a worthy cause for those of us who not only don't have enough money to support themselves but also don't have time to volunteer because looking for a job has become a full-time unpaid job. (I've been there, just like so many college grads are or soon will be.)

The World Community Grid is a brilliant online scheme that allows people to volunteer the spare capacity on their home computers to researchers. The object is to speed up number-crunching in research projects such as AIDS, cancer, clean energy, and dengue.
Information on the grid, and the links to download the necessary software, can be found at: www.worldcommunitygrid.org

Guest's picture
Guest

You may want to update that since it is South Daktoa, not North Dakota that Sanford resides. Sioux Falls and Sanford (formerly Sioux Valley) Health is in the lower eastern corner of South Dakota.

Catherine Shaffer's picture

My understanding is that CCFA does not use its resources to pressure recipients to convert to Christianity, and I would be very disappointed if they did. This is from their core values statement: "Relationships of mutual respect require acceptance of the equality of all persons. Equality of all persons comes from their essential dignity and is reflected in relationships that are without religious or other prejudice, that are multicultural, reciprocal and empowering."

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor 

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Thank you for the North/South correction! I will fix that.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor 

Guest's picture
Natasha Collins

amen, sister! if those of us who have the means and resources to make it by are struggling, imagine how much worse it must be for those who didn't have the resources to begin with. i hope we all take posts like yours to heart and look to find even just a small amount to contribute to worthy causes. mine are my local church, Relay For Life, and Goodwill (for any unused items laying around the house).

Guest's picture
BobV

The Southern Baptist Disaster Relief through the North American Mission Board is an outstanding organization that is very much on the forefront during disasters. They also do not evangelize... only reach out and help people through the rough times with meals, showers, chain saw teams, etc. Having been part of a team during Katrina, its a very worthwhile organization to contribute to.... whether you are a Baptist or not.

Guest's picture
Deb Koski

Thank you for lifting up Sanford Health as a great organization to support. Our Foundation IS actively seeking donations to help us in our quest to find a cure for type 1 diabetes, within Denny Sanford's lifetime. If you are interested in supporting us, or just learning more about what we are hoping to accomplish, please visit our website at: www.sanfordproject.org. To make a gift, select "Make a donation" and follow the steps. Thank you!

Guest's picture
Debbie M

There are too many choices and so I decided to prioritize this way:
1) Focus on the biggest problems and 2) Fund long-term solutions rather than temporary help.

My current notion of the biggest problems are:
* planetary destruction
* extreme poverty
* torture, abuse, and pain

My current favorite way to fight planet destruction via charity is the techniques used by The Nature Conservancy and Conservation International: they actually buy land in ecologically fragile areas so they can treat it properly themselves rather than begging politicians for favors, etc. They also work with other landowners both to learn from them and to teach them. Landowners fear some conservation groups because once a rare species is found on your land, someone may try to tell you that can no longer do what you want to with your own land. The Nature Conservancy instead assumes they must be doing something right and approaches them in a cooperative way rather than an adversarial way. I suspect Conservation International does this, too, though I don't know for sure, but their overhead costs are lower, so I contribute to them, too.

I've also heard that small organizations that clean up local areas are the best, especially for oceanic environments, but I haven't found any favorites in this category yet.

My current favorite way to help fight poverty is with microlending. FINCA International and ACCION will make small loans (such as $200 to buy a sewing machine) and have borrowers meet regularly to give each other advice on running a company. Once the loans are paid back, they can ask for more (such as another sewing machine so they can hire a worker). I like that the amount of money you donate is used over and over. I don't like that the interest rates charged are obscene by our standards.

I also like Planned Parenthood, which is about access and culturally compatible education, so that people can have only as many children as they want, which can help keep them out of poverty.

I haven't found ideal charities that deal with pain (there's a cancer pain research institute I donate to), torture (I think Amnesty International is probably good, but it's the only one I've found), or abuse (there's a local organization I donate to which tries to prevent abuse through parent education as well as reacting to abuse). I only recently added these issues to my list, and it's very depressing to research these organizations.

Guest's picture
Guest

My pocket is the only charity that I can actually afford right now.

Guest's picture

One thing that many people don't know about the American Red Cross, which I am proud to work for, is that we respond to small disasters as well as large national ones. In my community-- Orange County, Calif.-- we respond to disasters on average of twice a week, with the majority of those disasters being house fires. When someone's house or apartment catches on fire, we send a team to help provide a safety net which may include (among other things) food, medicine, lodging, and rental assistance, depending on the situation. We also provide free community disaster education sessions to help people learn what they can do to prepare themselves and their family to respond to and recover from disasters. And services to the armed forces, and health and safety classes (First Aid, CPR, AED, babysitting, etc.), and youth programs, and international tracing, and more! At our chapter, 85 cents of every dollar raised goes directly towards local programs and services.

None of that is possible without the support and generosity of the public!

Catherine Shaffer's picture

Deb Koski: Thanks for the link on donating to Sanford. I have updated the post accordingly. I didn't find this on the main Sanford Health page, so you might want to also post a donation link on the Sanford Health main page.

Thanks everyone for the great charitable organization ideas and information. Keep them coming and I will do an updated "readers favorites" post next week.

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor 

Guest's picture
Roger

A very nice list; I especially like the inclusion of local churches and charities. It's amazing just how much it takes to keep even a small church running regularly.

Guest's picture
starsapphire

Doctors Without Borders. Doctors and nurses volunteer to provide urgent medical care in countries to victims of war and disaster regardless of race, religion, or politics.

http://doctorswithoutborders.org/

Guest's picture
Brigid

I really like it that you included local charities as a category. My city is fortunate to have an Emergency Fund, funded entirely by donations, to help local residents in need. I work for the mayor, and administering the fund is part of my regular duties (i.e. there is no overhead). Because the only restriction is that the recipient must be a resident of our city, the fund is flexible enough to help those who may not fit the usual categories—which is happening more and more often lately. We also have two other funds that are administered by our local Red Cross, and I work closely with that fund administrator to make sure we are using the money efficiently. Our goal is always to get the family back on their feet and into a sustainable situation so they won't be back the next month.

If you would like to make a large donation to a single cause, you might investigate whether your city has such a fund and if not, offer to start it. None of our neighboring cities have funds like this, and it breaks my heart to refuse aid to someone because of where they live (although legally, I have no choice).

One immediate benefit to the fund is that most of the landlords around here only have one or two rental units, and they use the rent to pay the mortgage, so by making sure that rents are paid in full, we are helping keep the landlords in good financial health as well.

Guest's picture
kilian

Small operating expense, big humanitarian relief.

Great list on the other nine Kudos!

Whatcha think about #10 Catherine?

Guest's picture
Guest

During these difficult economic times, library funding is being reduced, branches closed and hours cut back. All this right at the time where people need them most. After all,where else can you get free stuff, help doing resumes and folks to entertain your kids?

Consider donating to your local branch, or volunteer.

Guest's picture

We are pretty strapped right now, but donate in a different way. Most recently, we donated a weekend of our time to be on the staff at a local Camp Erin, which is a child bereavement camp. We really got alot out of the experience, and I think that the kids that were there did as well. It was a bit tough to learn about some of their losses though.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I'll tip my hat to that organization.  Both my husband and my father are active in that organization.  They have been all over the country assisting with base needs for those after a disaster.  So much work still to be done in areas hit hardest by Katrina, last year's tornadoes, and current flooding situations.  The focus has always been on helping -- no strings attached!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Molly

Hello!

First, I always donate to the local anti-cruelty society. That's where almost all of my donation money goes because I feel it's better to make one bigger contribution to an organization than lots of smaller ones elsewhere. They gave me my adorable cat, and I constantly see articles of them crusading against puppy mills, dogfighting, and adopting out wonderful pets.

Second, do Girl Scout cookies count? I know plenty of older troops would love donations to keep doing what they're doing.

Finally - Brigid, what city is your Emergency Fund in? I would love to learn more about it.

Guest's picture
Guest

...with Doernbecher's? From their site: Shriners Hospitals for Children is a one-of-a-kind health care system dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing pediatric specialty care, innovative research and outstanding teaching programs. Every year, the 22 hospitals provide care for thousands of kids with orthopaedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries, and cleft lip and palate, in a family-centered environment at no charge. It's how Shriners Hospitals has been helping kids defy the odds since 1922. I'm partial to them as my wife works there.

Guest's picture
Rob O.

My wife & I are big supporters of Children's Miracle Network. We especially like that the donations made locally are predominantly used locally. and we've seen firsthand babies who've benefited from equipment & services made available as a result of donations that were applied at our local county hospital.

Guest's picture
Jennifer Busick

I recommend donating to your local Ronald McDonald house, or to the umbrella organization: http://donate.rmhc.org/Page.aspx?pid=254. They earn 4 stars on Charity Navigator, although the individual houses have their own ratings, as well.

They have been one of our 'charities' ever since our daughter was born with a major birth defect and spent 11 days in a NICU. RMH gave us a place to stay, close to the hospital, affordable (they ask families to pay $10/night, but no one *has* to pay), and designed to accomodate families with sick kids in ways that hotels are not. For families with sick kids, RMH relieves a great burden.

You can donate cash, or they also take donations of goods such as toothpaste and boxed meals.

Guest's picture

Thank you for spreading the word about the important work of this organization. Continued research in the field of diabetes holds so much promise for so many people. On my blog at www.dentistryfordiabetics.com/blog I write about the many treatments that improve the lives of people with diabetes as well as the research in the field. The focus of this research team on a cure is heartening.

Charles Martin, DDS
Founder, Dentistry for Diabetics