By Martha C. White
November 23, 2018

This is the time of year when many Americans contemplate giving back — and not coincidentally, it’s also the time of year when nonprofits and charities of all stripes send out solicitations for donations. The National Center for Charitable Statistics counts more than 1.5 million tax-exempt organizations in the United States, so finding the right fit for your giving might seem challenging.

Here are five insights from experts in charitable giving and philanthropy that will help guide you towards making a meaningful donation.

Write your “philanthropic autobiography”

“Probably the most important thing for donors is aligning the causes they give to with their own values, passions and interests,” says Una Osili, professor of economics and philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “That’s what leads to sustained engagement with a cause,” she says, which will help your giving become more intentional and deepen your relationship with a given charity.

Reflect back on the last year for inspiration, suggested Alan Ranzer, managing partner and co-founder at Impact 4 Good, an organization that develops corporate social responsibility events and team-building for businesses. “What were the highs and lows of your last year? If the high was a hiking vacation, for instance, maybe give to an organization that gets urban youth out into nature,” he says. Conversely, if you lost a loved one to an illness or injury, a charity that helps fund research or raise awareness about that cause might be meaningful to you.

Give to the moment, not in the moment

This advice might sound like semantical hair-splitting, but it’s an important distinction, according to Paul Schervish, professor emeritus and retired director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. In the aftermath of natural disasters or humanitarian crises, it’s natural to want to help, and charities in related fields often tie their solicitations to those headline-making events. But it’s important to pause and take a step back before pulling out your checkbook or entering your credit card number.

“Don’t give in the moment if it means you’re going to make a rash and quick decision,” says Schervish. If an unsolicited plea for funds comes from a charity with which you’re not familiar but their appeal moves you, see if any nonprofits to which you’re already donating are taking up that cause. “Use familiar charities for new purposes,” says Schervish.

Decide if you want to make an impact locally or globally

This is a tough one. “In today’s world, we have many donors that want to make a difference in their own backyard, but they also want to have an impact globally,” says Osili.

Many people like the idea of donating to a local charity because they feel that their dollars would have more of an impact in a smaller organization. “Sometimes looking towards organizations that don’t have the marketing dollars to broaden their reach — those are great organizations to support,” says Ranzer. “Wherever you want to make a difference, that’s a good thing.”

One option is not to view the “global versus local” consideration as an either-or question, says Osili. “In some areas, especially the international arena, a smaller gift can go a long way in terms of bringing services to a poor community,” she points out.

Vet your charities

Before you open your wallet, make sure the charity to which you plan to give will use your donation wisely. There are a number of organizations that research charities’ financial health and their commitment to transparency and accountability. Sites such as guidestar.org, charitynavigator.org, charitywatch.org and givewell.org are a good place to start if you’re trying to decide on a charity to support, because they deliver quantitative evaluations of doing good. They do the legwork of combing through charities’ tax filings and governance documents so you don’t have to, and present their findings in a straightforward and unbiased manner.

You also can look to trusted institutions for guidance. Experts in charitable giving say it can be useful to see which charities your alma mater, house of worship or employer supports, since their philanthropic efforts are likely to have been undertaken only after rigorous vetting, and it’s likely that your personal value system is at least similarly aligned to that of organizations with which you’re affiliated.

Think beyond dollars

Even if you don’t have a lot of money at the end of the year, there are ways you can help support a cause. Volunteering can be an option, especially for local charities that don’t have the kind of overhead for administrative functions and day-to-day operations as do their larger counterparts.

“If you have time to offer, check volunteermatch.org,” Ranzer says. “You can type in your city and a date, and they will give you organizations you can support that day.” In addition to geographic proximity, you can also search by cause areas like animals, education or health care to find a charity whose mission you want to support.

If you have professional skills — say, experience in accounting or graphic design — that know-how might be highly in demand. Volunteermatch.org is a good resource for finding a match, along with catchafire.org, a platform that matches people who want to do pro bono work with organizations that need assistance.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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