Choosing a charity to support this December

December 15 |
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.

Emma needs input on selecting a charity to support this year:

Charities online
Photo by: hmrcgovukCC BY 2.0
Every year our family chooses a charity to donate to instead of giving each other more "stuff."

This year it is my turn to choose, and I am having a hard time finding a useful legitimate charity to donate to. I am interested in a group that is involved on local fronts as well as global, I want the money to go towards what they say it will and I would love for it to be less widely known (not Salvation Army or Toys for Tots — I would love to donate to a smaller charity).

Do you have any ideas or a good place to start looking?

I LOVE HEIFER INTERNATIONAL. It's an incredibly direct way to help people around the world: you can fund a hive of bees, a gift of a water buffalo, a trio of rabbits, or any number of other livestock. Heifer International then delivers your gifted livestock to a family who can use it to make money, feed themselves, and start to support themselves.

I also have a friend who works for ONE: they work with my teenage crush Bono to fight AIDS, inequality, and extreme poverty around the world. I've worked with relatively rinky-dink non-profits, but my experience with them makes me appreciate how ONE administrates — they focus on going to the root of problems, not treating symptoms.

Looking locally, you could band your family together to support a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or even to sponsor a holiday meal at your closest Ronald McDonald House, a charity which supports families of severely ill children.

I know there are tons of great organizations out there, and we can give Emma and her family a smorgasbord to choose from. Pitch your cause in the comments.

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  1. I'm going to second local shelters, the one near us accepts donations of food as long as you call ahead to schedule when to bring something.

    If you do need a gift for someone and want to support charitable work my eye was caught by Punjammies, which sells pajama pants made by women in India who were in forced prostitution and are rebuilding their lives. You can also donate to them without purchase.

    1 agrees
  2. A friend of mine paints portraits of inspiring people and donates 100% of the purchase price to a charity of you choose from a short list, including things like A Gift for Teaching and Modest Needs. Each original painting costs $50, but if you donate more, he will match your entire donation.

    Speaking of Modest Needs ( ), that is a kick ass charity! The goal is to help people when a relatively small amount of cash would save the day, like when a single mom needs $200 to keep the electricity on until she gets her first paycheck from her new job, for example. It's a very satisfying charity to give to because you can see the results of your giving.

    I'm a big fan of Second Harvest of Central Florida ( ), the local branch of a big network of food banks. An amazing percentage of donations actually goes to feeding people, not administrative costs and overhead.

    1 agrees
    • I'll echo Second Harvest, if that is local (or not, too). While on a missions trip to Florida, we spent 1 day at their main warehouse. The employ homeless individuals in addition to providing food for SO MANY PEOPLE and their pets, too.

  3. Charity Navigator is a great website that helps you choose charities. One of the things it reports on is the percentage of the donations that are used for direct impact vs. overhead for running the offices.

    Also DonorsChoose is a website that allows teachers to request things for their classrooms and then donors can choose to donate the cost of those items directly to individual teachers. I know a lot of inner-city teachers who have really benefited from donations through that page.

    6 agree
    • THIS re Charity Navigator! I always want to make sure that the charities I'm donating to are wisely spending their money so definitely recommend doing research through a resource like Charity Navigator.

      2 agree
    • Also, if you'd like the background on Partners in Health, there's a great book about Paul Farmer and his work there called Mountains Beyond Mountains that I highly recommend.

  4. I used to work for and pretty much love the Red Cross. If you give to the American Red Cross, 50% of their work is done in the US, and 50% around the world.

    In the US, they respond to things like multi-car-car-crashes (when there aren't enough ambulances) and floods (providing clean water, dry clothes, helping people find lost members of their family) as well as lending wheelchairs/walking sticks to people who can't afford them.

    They also work in war-zones (Iraq, Afghanistan), areas of famine or drought (West Africa) and wherever there's a natural disaster (Haiti, Chile) providing emergency shelters and helping people to access clean, safe water and to find lost family members.

    You can't volunteer with the Red Cross and go and help people in the developing world by digging wells – their volunteers are all local (and so speak the language, know the people, understand the culture). The Red Cross don't accept any kind of funding from any government, anywhere and so are completely impartial. They help people who need it.

    Sorry, I just really like the Red Cross.

    2 agree
    • I've heard one too many stories about the Red Cross misusing donated funds. I can't trust them with my donations.

      4 agree
  5. Maybe you all could donate items to a local animal shelter? It's a smaller charity and your family could go by and see the animals for fun. Child's Play is another good option that will let you buy specific items for a pediatric unit of your choice.

    4 agree
    • I work for an animal shelter, and let me tell you how BADLY we need donations. Don't donate to giant animal welfare organizations (like ASPCA, for example) because they don't actually disperse that money to local animal shelters the way a lot of people believe they do. Most animal shelters are actually non-profits that run solely on the donations of people in their communities (like the one I work for), and receive no government funding.

      8 agree
  6. As someone who works for a very local charity that has a (scattered) national presence as well, I want to chime in that especially when you're dealing with smaller charities, don't assume that money spent on overhead and administration is money wasted. We provide free services to thousands of older adults and people with disabilities every year by coordinating volunteers, and our biggest challenge is finding the money to pay our staff. Without our volunteer coordinators, though, no one would get any services at all. I'd encourage anyone to ask more about what your donation goes to and how it helps others, but I'd hope that in the case of a charity like mine (, you'd understand that even paying salaries and phone bills is a worthy way to spend your money, and it really makes a difference. Whatever you decide, thank you for pledging to help others this Christmas.

    12 agree
  7. I love Kiva (even though it isn't strictly a charity, but a micro-lender) because I get to choose who to lend to so I feel more connected to the recipient. Plus, once the money has been paid back you get to choose someone new! A few years ago my folks gave us a Kiva giftcard for Christmas and each time we choose a new person to lend to we try to add as much as we can afford.

    2 agree
    • I love Kiva too. We also donate to the Make a Wish Foundation, Everyday Hero charities and AnimalAid (where we adopted two of our doggies from in Melbourne, Australia). 🙂

  8. You could look into Kiva:, which is an organization that provides short term loans to people who need them (like, if a shop owner in the Phillipines needs a $100 loan to restock her store after a hurricane). One of the neat things about Kiva is that you can choose who your money goes to, and when the loan is repaid you can loan the money out to someone else, so it's like a cycle of helping people. It's not exactly local (there are a few people in need of loans in the US) but the idea is really neat.

    1 agrees
  9. I've spent my professional career working for non-profits – from small community groups to large well known organizations. I can not say enough how important your donations are! The economy is making the work they do so much more important but the ability for people to donate is shrinking.

    We usually donate to local animal shelter as our Christmas gift to family members. This year we are also donating to organizations that work on preemie issues (our micro-preemies joined our family in March).

    Groups we have donated to for Christmas:
    -Ronald McDonald House — we saw the toll it took on families who had to commute hours just to see their babies. Our community doesn't have a low cost or free place for families of sick children to stay.

    -Graham's Foundation provides families of micro-preemies support while their tiny babies are in the NICU.

    -March of Dimes a large org that provides support for parents of preemies.

    -Pennies for Preemies buys equipment for NICUs.

  10. I would start by choosing which cause you would like the money to go to. Big issue causes here: Homeless people, underprivileged kids, the environment, Animals, Cancer research, etc. If you narrow it down to a specific cause it's easier to create a short list of potentials and choose based on other selection critera (percentage of donations that go to the cause, organization viability, etc). That being said if you are having problems finding local charities try using something like, anywhere that's looking for volunteers could probably also use a straight cash donation.

    2 agree
    • I second this. It's what I've done for my personal giving. There are many, many good causes, but I can't support them all, so I've selected a few which I care about and then support organizations which fall into those categories. I also consult charity navigator, and I also support local organizations where I'm aware of their impact on my community.

  11. I really love Room to Read. They support schools for girls and libraries all over the world.

    Also, if you don't sponsor your local public radio station, I find that a no brainer.

  12. Monetary donations to a local food bank are my go-to (they can use the money way more efficiently than actual physical food gifts). For me that's the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan which covers Flint, my hometown where many, many people need assistance. The recession has essentially been going on there not for a few years but for decades.

    2 agree
    • This is what I've done as well. One year I got tired of shopping for my mom, who only wanted "a happy and healthy daughter,' so I donated to a local food bank in my hometown instead. There are a lot of needy families, and since my mom does a lot of work with recovering drug addicts and alcoholics I thought that would be more meaningful. It's quite possible that my donation would help feed a family she knows…

  13. I vote for something local to your area! Our local independent newspaper does a "Give Guide" to local nonprofits every year–perhaps you have something similar?

  14. Because of personal experience, I am a fan of the Children's Heart Foundation – they fund medical research specifically for Congenital Heart Defects. I also love the Ronald McDonald House and the Make a Wish Foundation. 🙂 I have donated to Heifer International as well and I I like them. Also, if you are still stuck then I will second my vote to check out Charity Navigator to help find a worthy organization once you decide what you want to focus on.

  15. Several of our family's faves have already been mentioned (Heifer Intl., Donors Choose, Kiva, Red Cross, Second Harvest, local animal shelter), but I'll add Doctors Without Borders bec. they do amazing work & have won the Nobel Peace Prize for it. I'm also a fan of local environmental groups a la Save the Bay / Save Our Rivers, bec. waterways affect everyone & everything.

  16. Texas Equusearch. They search for missing persons worldwide, with a pretty good success rate. It's something you'd never hear of, or think of donating to, until you have reason to (a distant relative of mine went missing literally without a trace, and they're looking for her).

  17. Donate to your local animal shelters, rescue programs, non profit vet hospitals…they truly need the help. Even better, sign up to volunteer this holiday season!

    2 agree
    • Agreed!! Have to add – one way to volunteer is to foster. Most people have enough space to take on a dog or cat who needs a temporary home. Our best holiday season ever was two years ago, when a boxer gave birth to 9 puppies in our living room. Yes, they were a lot of work, but they were amazingly fun! I have pictures of all my friends at a party together with sleeping puppies on their laps.

      1 agrees
  18. As people have mentioned Heifer, and Kiva, and local animal shelters (all of which are good things, and yes, do it, donate!) I'm going to throw in Free the Children ( which was started by a 12 yr old Canadian boy to free child slaves across the world and then kind of…expanded. They save kids. It's pretty neat.

    There's also a specific group, whose name I unfortunately can't remember, dedicated to specifically to freeing child sex slaves and helping them survive and heal afterwards. Anybody know their name?

  19. i don't have a specific suggestion, but i'm going to chime in for supporting local organizations (local might mean even statewide or regional). there are national/international organizations that do great things, but i believe strongly in the power of smaller groups.

    for one thing – one of the major things that the foundations funding these organizations are looking for is a base of support among the same community they work in. so the money you give will have a big impact for a small group, but it will also leverage the grants that really keep them running.

    can you tell i work at one of these places? i could go on =)

  20. I know this Habitat for Humanity is a pretty well known organization, but it does meet all of your other guidelines. Not only can you donate money and time to building the houses, their ReStores need volunteers as well. They sell household items like lamps and apliances as well as building materials, and the money supports building the houses. Also, a lot of the supplies that are donated are given a second life which keeps them out of landfills. I volunteered at one over the summer and it was also a learning experience since I didn't know a lot about hardware.

    • Like someone mentioned above in reference to the ASPCA, donating to your local Habitat affiliate will get your money's impact into your community more effectively than donating to the national organization.
      I used to work with an affiliate and only a teensy part of our funding came from Habitat International. Donations made directly to us were received instantly, and we were able to use the entire amount of the donation.

  21. I have to mention the foundation I volunteer with simply because the reason behind its creation is my entire life. The A.Skate Foundation. or

    They host skate clinics across the country (and in Ireland–there's a chapter there) for kids with autism as a form of alternative therapy. Donations go towards the insurance and fees to host these free clinics for these families and to provide free skate gear to these kids. The founder, Crys Worley, started this because of her son Sasha and has mostly been funding this out of her own pocket or through donations.

    If nothing else, check it out and spread the word. Awareness is just as good!

  22. Can I chime in with a big push for
    It is a registered charity set up by a regular mum and dad whose daughter was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy. 100% of donations go towards research for this disease which is almost entirely funded by parents and supporters. This one couple have raised over half a million dollars and are pushing research forward. They are a wonderful couple who help families all over cope with this awful disease. They also fundraise via ebay, the proceeds of this go towards buying SMA children iPads I can't push this organisation enough!

  23. I've been won over to the concept of cost efficient giving, that's donating to charities which can improve and extend the most human lives. I give to charities working in developing countries because $100 goes so much further when spent on basic healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa than in a developed country. The website Give What We Can advocates this position and suggests some charities which they view as cost efficient.

  24. A friend of mine used to work at Visual Aid in San Francisco. They're an organization that fund raises for artists with terminal illnesses so they don't have to choose between supporting their art or paying for their healthcare.

  25. My friends work for an organization called LoveGrows, which partners with the Royal School & Orphanage in Uganda. It's not like those $.60 of every $1 you contribute goes to the orphanage and children, but 100% of all donations collected is sent directly to Uganda. Current projects for the orphanage including building a latrine as well as giving the orphanage opportunities for self-sustainability – their own chickens for eggs and greenhouse-type structures for crops. You can sponsor a child monthly, donate specifically for meals as a one-time gift, or a general donation for the aforementioned projects also as a one-time gift.
    For more information:

    P.S. – Sorry for the novel. It is a charity that is very dear to me. My husband and I sponsor one of the children, and the charity was started by my husband's bandmate and our long-time friend.

  26. The international justice mission is an organisation of investigators and lawyers who work to build and try cases against human traffickers and slaveholders around the world. They are at the forefront of the modern abolitionist movement, and it really doesn't get better than that.

  27. I grew up on a farm so giving to Heifer International was a logical charity for my family growing up.
    While I still support Heifer International, a lot of my giving is directed towards the April's Army charity causes vetted and picked by April Winchell of Regesty. I like that she takes the time to find people I'd love to help.

    1 agrees
  28. All Hands Disaster Response! I volunteered with them in Peru after an earthquake. They are the most efficient non-profit I have ever seen. They respond to disaster both in the US and abroad.

  29. The Heifer Project in my FAVORITE charity! One of the best charity ideas in existence!

    Another amazing one is They're a non-profit organization that basically deals with mircofinancing (correct me if thats the wrong term!). You lend as little as $25 dollars to someone who is impoverished (usually in the 3rd world, but I think other places, too) to help them build up a business. Its beautiful, I just love Kiva.

    I love companies like these two because they're a "teach a man to fish" type charities. You're giving the gift of being able to take care of themselves in the long run which is so much better than short term solutions. I love it! And I love how many people are into charity on this site!

  30. For those in the Tampa Bay area, my long time friend Russ Fletcher started a yearly tradition called "Hamburgers for the Hungry". He collects donations and on Christmas day goes and around passing them out to those in need. Here is the link for those who are interested in helping either with a donation or if you are interested in passing some burgers out yourself.

  31. The Salvation Army was only briefly mentioned and with little interest, but if any is thinking of donating to them, they should read the organization's religious/political position statements first: It never occurred to me (because I'm an absolute idiot, apparently) that the "salvation" in the title was the religious type, but now it creeps me out that I've donated to what I see as a homophobic, misogynistic, sex-negative organization. So I thought I bring this up just in case anyone else was unaware.

    • I'm not sure if that link is working, but the information is at the Salvation Army's website in the "About Us" section, under "Position Statements."

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