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Move over Black Friday and Cyber Monday, today is Giving Tuesday. Here's a set of criteria for deciding who and what to support with your end-of-year donation. In this photo, a Salvation Army bell ringer solicits donations in Manhattan, Dec. 17, 2008. (Seth Wenig/AP)

If you’re like me, on top of all the usual holiday season craziness, you have to think about your end-of-year giving. It is a complicated task that can seem daunting. This year, let’s make it easier and, hopefully, a little more meaningful.

Some lucky souls already have their charitable giving all figured out. “Glad tidings” to them.

But for most people, end-of-year giving presents all kinds of questions: How much do I give? How do I know if my gift will be effective? I can’t give to everyone who deserves it — so, who needs it most?

Using these three kinder, gentler criteria, you can find great organizations without falling back on old ideas…

People don’t always navigate these questions well. They tend to give to organizations they already know, or those that have a reputation for “efficiency.” The former means the usual suspects get most of the holiday cookies. The latter means we favor low “overhead,” or an anorexic percentage of the dollars going to run the organization itself.

I don’t like either approach. More on that in a minute. But first, acknowledging good intentions, people go with the usual suspects and overhead as proxies for three reasonable factors:

The first is moral commitment to the cause. An organization that pays little and puts everything into the cause must be run by good people with their hearts in the right places, right? Maybe. But, not always.

The second is efficiency. No one likes waste. The average person can’t easily judge whether a nonprofit is managed well.  So, we turn to websites like www.charitynavigator.org and overhead numbers as the next best thing.

The third is efficacy. Will my contribution make a difference? Measuring change isn’t easy; understanding those measures is tough, too. So, we substitute efficiency for efficacy and give where others give.

Unfortunately, low overhead can kill quality and innovation, which in turn drives away risks that could lead to creative problem solving. How well would your household run if you had no money for savings, clothing, household improvements, money for classes, etc.? All are considered “overhead.” And funding the usual suspects means that the new, the innovative, or maybe just the under-the-radar don’t get the resources they need.

Therefore, this season, I offer three simple, alternative criteria you can use to target your giving. They get at the same important factors and are easily accessible by doing a simple Google search.

For moral commitment: Why did the founder(s) start the organization? Organizations that come from personal experience or revelation can be a good proxy for true moral commitment. The “About” section of an organization’s website should give you its history. Look for those founded by some person or community profoundly touched by the problem.

For efficiency: How well does the organization incorporate the people it serves? The most efficient way to tackle a problem is to work with those experiencing it. Check the board of directors. Are there people from the community or former clients on it? Skim the description of programming. Who came up with what they are doing? What role do the “clients” play? If clients are at the center of it all — participating, designing programs, etc. — you have a good efficiency bet.

For efficacy: Does the organization really understand the problem? The world is full of organizations that do what they do well, but aren’t actually making change over time. That’s because the problems often are complex and take a deep, smart, systems-level understanding. Google the organizations. Do other nonprofits mention and respect them? What awards for innovation or creativity have they won? Do their own funders feature them? Then, in order to adjust for any superstar effect, check their websites again. Do they explain why they do what they do and how it will change things in the long run? Those are programs that likely understand the long play, and how real change will happen over time.

This approach isn’t perfect. Maybe you’ll spend 30 minutes instead of 15 doing your research. Plus, it favors organizations with a reasonable Web presence.

Nevertheless, using these three kinder, gentler criteria, you can find great organizations without falling back on old ideas, and without perpetuating organizational starvation. You can have impact with your dollars and support things that work in ways that offer dignity and control to the people they target.

How many of your other purchases this season will hit that mark?

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  • J__o__h__n

    Don’t give to the Salvation Army. They are anti-gay.

  • StevenHB

    I think that you need to add something about the values of the organization matching the values of the donor, which is John’s point about the Salvation Army. They’re ubiquitous at this time of year, but given their homophobia, they really miss on values.

  • Eleanor

    Although these are valid questions to ask about organizations that live on our donations, trying to find the answers solely on the internet or through mass media would also be a mistake.

    If you know so little about an organization that you have to rely on the superficial and/or self-congratulatory material you can find on the web to make a judgment, keep your money this year. Instead pledge to spend some time all through next year trying to learn about how various groups approach the problems that concern you.One of the best ways to learn is, of course, to volunteer to help with the work of the organization yourself.

    • Tiziana

      Fantastic point, Eleanor. I don’t argue with you that truly the best way to make an investment is to get to know an organization deeply, preferably through volunteering and visiting first.

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