But how do I choose?!? Some thoughts on year-end giving

This article is reposted from Jessie’s personal blog from 12/24/2013
Its that time of year when there is an all-time high of people in my community asking my opinion about giving and charity. I’m writing this for my personal blog, but in such a way that I hope it is shareable with all of our broader networks. It is by no means comprehensive, but its a start. When you, dear reader, are asked by your cousin or co-worker or housemate about giving, I hope this is something you will find useful to share!

Some of the questions I’ve gotten this week include: how do you know that the money is actually going to “the cause”? If an organization sends glossy fancy mailings multiple times year does that mean they’re spending too much on overhead? Should I give to causes in the global South where things seem much more dire, or give domestically?

Should i give to large organizations that are well-established, with far reach and tried and true structure? Small or newer organizations that are doing experimental work? Give to a foundation, that has a specific focus and has a process for evaluating organizations, or “cut out the middle man” and give straight to the organizations?

Political advocacy and lobbying, or traditional 501c3? Give my time and personal growth by participating in a cross-class decision-making process about my and others’ donation dollars? Or entrust the resources i’m stewarding to poor, working, and middle class leaders to make the decisions about where the money will be best used?

The goal of this post is not to hand anyone a proscribed method of giving, or precisely the vehicles or organizations your money should go to. I want to lay out a reminder on the different vehicles or types of giving you can do; and also some of the basics of what i think it means to be a responsible and accountable philanthropist and donor working for progressive social change. Check out Resource Generation’s page on social change philanthropy for more info, or order RG’s Social Change Giving Plan Workbook. The organization Bolder Giving also has great resources and stories on giving and philanthropic practices.

Some types of places to give…

  • Non-profit 501c3 organizations: Much social justice work happens within non-profits, often called “501c3s” because of the IRS charitable status. Replace the word “philanthropy” with “non-profit,” and many of these social change philanthropy principles are applicable to running a social justice non-profit org. The federal government incentivizes donations to 501c3s by making them tax-deductible, making them a popular favorite. I love to debate the collective societal cost/benefit of the government subsidizing charity, but that’s a different blog post.

  • Non non-profit community groups: The concept of the non-profit as *the* way to work for social justice is a relatively new and often times limiting model. Some important projects working for social change can’t afford, or choose to avoid, the rigamaroll and red tape it takes to establish and run an institution like a 501c3. Some of the most groundbreaking work around migrant justice, for instance, is happening around personal kitchens or in church groups (this was also the case for myriad historical “movement moments” including anti-apartheid organizing in South Africa and Civil Rights organizing in the US South, to name two). Push yourself to look and think outside the box of the non-profit model. What might be brewing in your own backyard?

  • Political lobbying or advocacy organizations: A key to any social change is shifting power. This includes who is elected into government, who can affect legislation, and what laws are on the books. Organizations that are working in these arenas to amplify the voices of people most directly impacted by injustice, get truly progressive people into office, get corporations out of bed with politics, etc. are crucial. Legally these organizations are often classified as 501c4s, PACs (Political Action Committees), individual candidates’ campaigns, political parties, and more. Here is one example: the “New York Social Justice PAC.”

  • Social justice foundations: My definition of a social justice foundation is one that is committed to (1) funding work that is addressing the root causes of injustice, and (2) having grant decisions made by people most directly affected by oppression and injustice – aka, the people with the big money don’t decide where it is most needed, they work alongside or hand over decision-making power to people with marginalized voices – poor and working class people, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, indigenous people, immigrants, etc. Here is one list of some social justice foundations, and here is a list of the foundations in the former Funding Exchange network. Checking out their current & former grantees is also a great way to find organizations doing work “on the ground.”

  • Donor circles:  Also known as giving circles or funding pools, donor circles can take many forms. Generally, they involve a group of individuals coming together to pool their resources, and make giving decisions collectively. Giving circles are great because they are a way to include the leadership of non-wealthy people in decision-making. More explanations and examples here on RG’s website.

A responsible and social change oriented donor generally…

  • …gives to organizations led by the people directly affected by the cause they are tackling and amplifies the voices of people of color, poor and working class people, indigenous people, women and trans people, LGBTQ people, immigrants, people with disabilities, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and more.

  • …is clear and concrete about how much they are able to give (Do: “I can commit to giving $300 this year.” Don’t: “I can’t commit to giving you a nice-sized gift.”) Descriptors are so relative!

  • …makes multi-year pledges whenever possible, so organizations can plan their work (rather than having to re-evaluate every 365 days based on funding streams).

  • …gives to (or mostly to) general operating support. Earmarking donations only for specific programs makes it so the funders are dictating what is important to prioritize – trust the folks who work day in and day out at the organization to know where the funds will be best used. It also tends to make extra hassle and administrative work to attach strings to your donation.

  • …gives to the little guys! Organizations with annual budgets in the tens and hundreds of thousand dollars (or even smaller) are usually not even considered by larger funding streams, like foundations. Mainstream “charity guides” like CharityNavigator.org won’t even rate organizations with budgets less than $1 million, so the millions of individual donors that rely on such websites as a guide won’t even have smaller organizations on their radar (which sucks). A good rule of thumb is to default to supporting small – social justice – organizations that don’t have the cushion of mainstream philanthropy.

  • …supports organizations that pay all their workers a living wage to the best of their ability. There is talk in mainstream charity analysis that if too much of an organization’s budget goes to Personnel or Administration, it’s not going to “the actual work.” Lest we forget, it costs money to run an organization! Offices, computers, healthcare, salaries…”overhead” has become like a 4-letter word in the giving/charity sector, which is devastating for the health and long-term effectiveness of most organizations.

  • To caveat the above: some (mostly larger) non-profits can slip into some not-so-social-change-y ways — like paying Directors and Fundraisers more than 3 or 4 times what other full-time employees make. If you’re curious – do your homework! All non-profits are required to put their 990 Form online as a matter of public record.

  • …does their homework. People working in the arena of social change are incredibly busy (I know, we all are. I know!). So it makes a huge difference – especially to small organizations, that may not have funding to hire a donor-relations staffer – to try your darndest to do your own research. The internet is amazing – do some serious poking on organizations’ websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, blogs, to find the information you might be looking for about an organization’s work.

  • …knows that some of the most groundbreaking work is the most experimental, has the least fancy web presence, and oftentimes fails a bunch before it succeeds. Dozens of wealthy, mostly white college students and their parents helped fund the Freedom Summer of ’63 (read more here). Did some of that work “fail”? Yep. Did some of it meet their goals? For sure. The donors didn’t always know exactly what was happening on the ground (there was no Twitter in ’63, friends) but they trusted that their dollars were part of overall movement-building, of trying things out in the name of a better world. We need more of that.

In closing…remember: we live in an economic depression of capitalism at its worst. Money needs to be moving – don’t get stuck by trying to do it all exactly right. According to a report by the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, in 2011 less than 12% of all granted funds went to social change philanthropy (broadly defined as ““work for structural change in order to increase the opportunity of those who are the least well off politically, economically and socially”). Any money that anyone can give towards social change is so direly needed.

So! Give big. Take some risks. We’ll all be better for it.