It’s counterintuitive to ask folks who have just maxed out their credit cards on Black Friday and Cyber Monday to spend even more, but if Giving Tuesday 2020 is anything like last year’s 24-hour grassroots campaign, Americans will come through: Last year, they donated more than $500 million to local and national charities.
Giving Tuesday was conceived in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, and spun off as an independent organization in 2019. Now spanning 60 countries, #GivingTuesday is designed to inspire global generosity and balance the commercialization and consumerism of the holiday season.
Last year’s campaign brought in $511 million in online U.S. donations and an estimated global total of $1.97 billion in online and offline donations. This year, Giving Tuesday is scheduled for Dec. 1 – but in response to the unprecedented needs associated with COVID-19 (and to jumpstart donors who often wait until year-end), organizers officially launched #GivingTuesdayNow on May 5. United States donors have already ponied up more than $503 million in online donations, mostly in smaller amounts, from first-time contributors.
The CARES Act included a new $300 income-tax deduction for cash contributions to nonprofits; those who itemize their deductions can take off 100 percent of their cash gifts. That’s good because many people see helping others as an antidote to the fear, isolation, uncertainty, injustice and division that has marred 2020.
But sometimes, that urge to help – that quick, impulsive click on a Facebook fundraiser or text link to a compelling GoFundMe page – puts charitable funds in the wrong hands.
Hundreds of donors, moved to fight for racial justice after George Floyd’s suffocation by police, donated millions of dollars to the California-based Black Lives Matter Foundation – a charity with one paid employee, a Santa Clara UPS store as its listed address and no connection whatsoever to Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation Inc., the organization behind the national movement. The money has since been retrieved, but it’s a cautionary tale for anyone who gives money to charity.
Actress Melissa McCarthy apologized recently after accidentally promoting Exodus Cry, an allegedly anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ nonprofit, in an HBO charity campaign promoting her new film, “Superintelligence.” Responding to fans who flagged the group, McCarthy said in an Instagram video: “We made a mistake and we backed a charity that, upon proper vetting, stands for everything that we do not.”
Exodus Cry has denied the allegations, but it’s clear that neither HBO nor McCarthy did their homework. Most people don’t. We often make donations simply because a friend asks us to buy a ticket to his dinner or sponsor her marathon run. The charity doesn’t matter.
It should. To help, charity rating sites like Charity Navigator, Guidestar, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Givewell verify a nonprofit’s legal status and provide other valuable insights.
But this is not a failsafe measure. Many charities – especially smaller ones – may not be rated, and some larger organizations have opted out, citing burdensome documentation requirements and what they say is a misplaced emphasis on executive compensation levels and administrative expenses as efficiency and trust markers.
Some, including Dan Pallotta – who originated the hugely successful AIDS Rides bicycle journeys and the Breast Cancer 3-Day events – says the way some rating sites, regulators and donors evaluate charities is all wrong.
“We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people,” he opined in his popular 2013 TED Talk that’s been viewed online more than 5 million times. “Interestingly, we don’t have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money not helping other people. You know, you want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it. We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”
While donors often ask how much of each dollar will be spent “helping people,” Pallotta argues that organizations that set some dollars aside for robust infrastructure – modernized information technology systems, financial systems, staff training, fundraising processes, and other essential investments – are more likely to succeed than those that do not. “Don’t ask about the size of their overhead,” he advises, “ask about the size of their dreams.”
So, beyond asking about its hopes and dreams, how do you find out if a charity is not only legit, but a solid investment?
Visit the organization’s website and check out whether its mission, goals and programs are well-aligned. How does this group measure success, short-term achievement and long-term impact? Look at its management team bios, its director and advisory boards, audited financials and its annual IRS Form 990, all of which should be readily available – healthy charities recognize the importance of transparency.
Google each charity and include terms like “lawsuits” and “complaint.” Scan its social media feeds and then, most importantly, pick up the phone. Call the organization and say, “I’d like to learn more about your work and I’d like to speak with someone who can answer a few questions for me.”
Ask how this organization makes a difference, about its biggest successes, its biggest challenges, its funding strategy. Ask how it differs from other groups in the field. Thank them for their time, and make sure you ask this: “If I give you $100, how will you spend it?”
Once you’re satisfied and have settled on a worthy charity (or two), make your donation and see what happens. Did you get a written acknowledgment? Was it personalized? Did you get a follow-up phone call and an invitation to visit the organization, or see a program in action? Do you receive periodic program reports that don’t ask for more money?
Are they genuinely interested in creating a lasting relationship with you?
If yes, you’ve got a winner. Double your next donation. Visit and volunteer in their programs, and then maybe ask your friends and family to do the same.
A version of this article first appeared on Innovate LI.