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Choose Your Charity

Charitable giving is a valuable alternative to traditional giving. But is your dollar making cents?

By Featured, News

Illustration by Jade Sheng

These days, my grin is forced as I take a gift into my hands. I struggle to gracefully accept gifts. The thing is: I need fewer things.

Refusing a gift can feel bad for a relationship. So this year, craft a wishlist differently: Name nonprofits to give time, talent, or money.

According to, 31% of giving in the United States happens in December, with the last three days alone garnering 12% of the annual total. How does one decide which organization(s) to financially support?

Charity Navigator is a popular website that provides ratings on charities. The website functions best as a sorting tool to list charities related to particular causes. Under categories that range from animals to environment to religion, Charity Navigator sorts the 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States.

To provide ratings, Charity Navigator analyzes tax forms filed by nonprofits. Red flags such as excessive overhead or porky CEO salaries are reflected in ratings. Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough manpower at Charity Navigator to conduct interviews with representatives at the nonprofits. According to Matt Viola, vice president of the program analyst team, conversations with nonprofits are “not a prerequisite in any way to compile and post a rating.” To assess accountability and transparency, Charity Navigator relies on a nonprofit’s web presence. This method is somewhat problematic. After all, you can write anything on the internet.

Like Charity Navigator, GiveWell also rates charities. GiveWell is interested in finding the organizations that “save or improve lives the most per dollar.”

This data-driven approach results in the annual publication of a list of ten or fewer “top charities.” Vetting according to these criteria is not straightforward; fitting human suffering into a data model might be impossible. For example, to compare the effects of charitable interventions, GiveWell considers, “Is it better to save the life of a five-year-old or fifteen-year-old?” The fifteen-year-old may be the breadwinner for his elderly relative while the five-year-old has more quality years of life available.

Clearly these questions have no satisfactory answers, a fact with which GiveWell publicly grapples. In the form of blog posts, audio recordings of conference calls, and spreadsheets, GiveWell provides nearly fifteen years of reflections on methodology, site visits, analyses of top charities, and mistakes.

Such thoroughness is necessary to convince potential donors why this US-based nonprofit will only recommend organizations working overseas: “The root issue here is that developing-world poverty is far more severe than developed-world poverty.”

Furthermore, a fact of the global financial landscape is that a US dollar can buy a lot more in a developing country than in the US. The top charities for 2021 support initiatives to prevent malaria, provide Vitamin A supplements to children, and send money directly to impoverished families.

When asked to comment on the concern that GiveWell may operate within the unflattering historical mindset of Western saviorism, Ben Bateman, Head of Growth, responded: “We donʼt have a comment on this at the moment. We don’t have anything written for this already, and given the weight of the topic I don’t want to draft anything on short notice — weʼre quite intentional on our comms.”

I imagine this topic being a future blog post because GiveWell seems to think critically about itself, and practices high expectations of transparency.

The most familiar aggregator of fundraising campaigns is GoFundMe. Founded in 2007, GoFundMe is a for-profit tech company with a community of 50 million donors.

Given its influence, I was disappointed to learn from a GoFundMe customer care representative that, “typically our marketing team selects fundraisers to share [on GoFundMeʼs homepage] that have already picked up momentum … stories that GoFundMe followers are most likely to read through.” Here, the law of internet virality rules.

Usually the homepage contains fundraisers related to current disasters. When asked how these fundraisers are vetted, GoFundMe replied, “Our Trust & Safety team has safety measures they take… I wonʼt be able to provide you with what their procedure is, but I can provide you with our Terms of Service.” This is a far-cry from transparency.

Research in the Los Angeles Times suggests that because GoFundMe “users… appeal to their own networks for support, campaign outcomes reflect the vast inequities in wealth and privilege that lie beneath the veneer of American ʻopportunity.ʼ”

Swaths of Americans are not plugged into GoFundMe. Fully one-third of GoFundMe campaigns are related to medical costs. Given that medical debt is the most common reason to declare bankruptcy in this country, perhaps a nice wishlist item is volunteer hours with political organizations to support universal health care.

Reflections on an organization’s transparency and impact help me write my wishlist this year. Charitable contributions, unlike material gifts, tend not to clog supply chains, require coerced labor, or add plastics to our burdened planet. The landscape of charitable giving is vast and may require some research, but no one said consuming ethically under capitalism would be easy.

Michaela Chan (MFAW 2023) is the News Editor at F Newsmagazine. Hopefully she is drawing a tree.

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