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If you’re reading this, there’s a 55% chance you’ve given a donation to a nonprofit this year. At least, that’s what research tells us.
For those of you who have given a donation — how do you decide where to give?
I’ve worked for nonprofits for almost my entire professional career, and the years I was in for-profit I was volunteering with nonprofits. I feel pretty dialed into the nonprofit community here in Philadelphia and usually have a good read on who is doing good work, who is using donations responsibly, and who is really meeting their mission.
My fellow fundraisers and I are all too familiar with the struggle that is convincing people that we’re a good investment for their hard-earned dollars. But I hadn’t stopped to consider how much easier the decision of where to make my personal donation is for me, given what I do all day. My decision-making process looks a lot different than those who aren’t in my shoes.
It seems to me (in my very unscientific observations of friends and family) that donations flow most easily and regularly to the organizations that have the most notoriety for doing what they do. I work for a housing organization, and if you say the words “homelessness” and “Philadelphia” in the same sentence, inevitably the person you’re talking to will immediately assume that you’re talking about Project HOME.
I love Project HOME. They do important work. But they’re not the only housing organization here in Philadelphia, and the work they do is different than the work that we do at Pathways to Housing PA. It’s also different than the work done at Bethesda Project, One Day at a Time, Valley Youth House, and Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission. Each of our services are targeted towards different populations that have distinct needs, but we are all working to end homelessness in Philadelphia. Our continuum of services provides enough alternatives for most folks in need to find a program that works for them — with an issue as complex as homelessness, there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
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For folks who aren’t in our immediate community, the distinctions between the different types of housing and programming aren’t clear. It’s so easy for me to forget that the nuances aren’t always obvious because I’m living those nuances every day.
And — perhaps the biggest frustration of all — my organization has three people in our advancement department who are dedicated full time to raising funds and awareness for our work. There are so many smaller, grassroots organizations who don’t have the capacity for even one staff person to focus on advancement. Does that make them any less deserving of your donation? Not at all! But it does make their struggle to break through the cluttered nonprofit landscape in Philadelphia that much harder.
So, how do you decide where to give?
I’m not at all saying that giving to a well known organization is a bad thing. What I AM saying is that before you commit your hard-earned cash to the first organization in line, take just a few minutes to think it through.
Do your homework.
Do you want to support people who have cancer? Awesome! Take a few minutes to think about what exactly that means to you. Does it mean research for new, more effective treatments? Does it mean financial relief for people who have cancer? Does it mean support networks? Does it mean raising awareness of the disease and options for screening, to prevent more people from late diagnosis? All noble causes, all cancer related. And all very different missions. If you support the first cancer organization you come across, you may end up supporting research when you care more about financial relief. Take the time to read about the organization’s mission and vision, as well as the programming areas they offer.
Do you know someone who has worked there? Who has received services there? Who has served on the board or volunteered with them? What an organization presents to the general public does not always match what’s going on behind closed doors.If you don’t know anyone familiar with the organization, so some searches: check social media, look at online reviews, read Glassdoor entries. One person with negative feedback could just mean there was a glitch or it was a bad day, but several would be concerning.
Take them out for a spin.
Does the organization you want to support offer volunteer opportunities? Do they have events open to the public? Can you tour their space? Get some face time with the folks on the ground, the ones who are doing the work. They’re your best source of information on how the program works but also how the program treats the people it serves. If you hear people using negative language about clients during a tour, that’s a red flag that you wouldn’t have seen if you just made a quick donation online without looking beyond the surface.
Talk to their peers.
I’d be an excellent person to talk to if you’re considering a donation to a housing organization — not because I would sell you on MY org, but because I have a good sense of what’s going on with our peers. I know who cherry picks their clients to ensure they can report good outcomes, and I know who is bending over backwards so that their client’s needs are met. On paper, one may look much better than the other — and you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t chat with someone familiar with both organizations. Think about your networks and who may be dialed into the cause you’re interested in, and ask them questions.
Once you decide, don’t just make a donation — talk about it!
Share with your family and friends who you gave to and why their work is important to you. Especially if that organization is smaller and doesn’t have full time staff who are doing fundraising and marketing work.
Often the most impactful work is done quietly, without a lot of fanfare. Using your voice to raise awareness and elevate their recognition in the community is almost as important as making a monetary donation to their cause.-30-
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