I’m sitting on the couch, envelope knife in hand, with Fido sighing in his sleep and shrugging more comfortably into his dog pillow on the floor.
The appeals for help are rolling in with heart-tugging tales and tear-tumbling photos. If I could, I’d save every dog from the abuse and neglect I’ve been reading about.
And that’s the challenge: I have limited resources and the needs seem to be infinite. Here’s how I handle the problem:
- Define my dollars. I set a budget for what I can spend on charitable causes in a year. It’s based on my income, my fixed financial obligations and my goals for the year. I do this early in the year, when my mind isn’t so clouded by all the appeals. Having a set limit keeps me from being overly impulsive. It forces me to think harder about my values and priorities in terms of helping dogs.
- Investigate the recipients. Because I don’t have a lot of money to give, I want to make sure the money I do give goes as far as possible to achieve the desired results. That means doing research, which I’ll describe in the next section.
With an any big, national charity research is easy. I go to one of the following organizations:
- Charity Navigator. This organization describes itself as “America’s largest independent charity evaluator,” and evaluates about 6,000 charities. The Animal category of its database includes 422 organizations. It provides a variety of information about a charity, including an income and expense table, how well it performs on metrics such as financial performance, accountability and transparency. You can find out how much of the budget is spent on administration, fund raising and programs.
- CharityWatch. This organization (formerly known as the American Institute of Philanthropy) rats about 600 nonprofits. In contrast to CharityNavigator, it evaluates audits and other information beyond the Form 990s that nonprofits are required to file with the government.
- GuideStar. This site offers a variety of downloaded materials on giving tips and why looking at a nonprofit’s administrative costs is not the best way to evaluate them. While you can get a certain amount of information without registering, you get more if you do.
- The Better Business Bureau. This organization has a National Charity Report that allows you to look up charities by name or category. It rates charities against a 20-point list, including such things as board oversight and size, effectiveness, program expenses, fund raising expenses, audit report and complaints.
Other things to consider
All of these evaluations have flaws. Paulette V. Maehara, president and chief executive of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal: “We encourage donors to get information about the charity from the charity, and look at the impact and effectiveness of the organization.”
Financial advisor Sean Stannard-Stockton recommend donors ask three questions:
- What does the organization do?
- How do they do it?
- How do they know if they are making a difference?
Be alert to the differences between a tax exempt organization and a tax deductible donation. Tax exempt organizations do not have to pay taxes. But the only donations that you can claim as tax deductions on your income taxes are organizations that have been designated under federal law as nonprofit organizations. Donations to organizations that engage in lobbying or political activities — which maybe exactly what you want on behalf of an animal cause — are not tax deductible.
Fido’s charitable focus for 2013
We haven’t finalized our giving plan yet, but it’s shaping up this way:
- The Amanda Foundation. Fido and I came together through the Amanda Foundation. The Amanda Foundation saved him from being put down in a Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) shelter.
- LAAS. Given that I just said that Fido nearly lost his life in one of their shelters, it may seem odd that I would support them with a donation. I always send a little extra when I renew Fido’s license for two reasons. The first is that had Fido not being picked up by LAAS, he might have gotten run over by a car, starved, gotten sick or attacked by another stray dog. Secondly, they do an unimaginable job trying to protect animals in Los Angeles County. They help abandoned or stray dogs get a second chance.
- No Kill LA (NKLA). NKLA is a coalition of more than 60 organizations initiated by the Best Friends Animal Society, to end the killing of healthy or treatable animals in Los Angeles by 2017. Anyone who loves animals should support this goal. It can be achieved.
Making a charitable donation is one way of putting your money where your values are.
What are your charitable priorities this season? Who will you be giving to?