Give yourself the gift of knowledge, and help others year round

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The other day I was walking in Uptown Waterloo and I was waved down by someone working for Public Outreach, and organization that does fundraising for charities like Greenpeace and Sick Kids in Toronto. The person was very friendly and explained the charity they were raising money for. As I listened, I realized that this was for a cause I’d never heard of. How was I to know that if I donated, my money would be having a real impact? How did I know the charity’s values lined up with mine? This is something many of us encounter with so many non-profits and charities asking for donations, especially during the Christmas season. With this in mind, I politely declined to donate at that moment, but promised to do some research on my own to make an informed decision.

Moving right along with our 12 Days of doing good, the theme of today, day 7, is Knowledge. This is clearly a broad theme, so we thought we’d focus on something that is relevant to the season, when many people are generously donating to their favourite charity or non-profit organization: how do you choose a charity that is in line with your values and is having a positive impact? I know that with more than 85 000 charitable organizations in Canada alone, it can be hard to choose. In fact, Canada has the second largest non-profit and voluntary sector worldwide (the Netherlands has the first). Today, we’re going to give you a few tips about how you can make an informed decision when donating to your cause of choice.

12 Days

The first thing I always do when researching a charity is to look up their mission statement, vision, and organizational values. This tells you in a nutshell what they want to do, how they do it, and the principles that guide them. In other words, what they see as important. If their values are not the same as your own, or make you uncomfortable, maybe it is not a good fit.

A few other things you’ll want to find out about an organization before donating may be their overall budget and financial information, as well as the impact they’re having in the community. Much of this information may be found on their website or through annual reports and audited financial statements—both of which any charity should be willing to send you via email if they are not on their website.

Imagine Canada is an organization that is dedicated to maintaining the ethics of Canadian charitable organizations, and can be a great resource for finding out the right questions to ask when you’re researching an organization. For example, they have a new standards program where charities can become accredited in areas like board governance, financial accountability and transparency, staff management, fundraising, and volunteer involvement. You can download their Guide to Giving which has really good tips as well. Some things you might want to ask are, how is fundraising money spent? Can you choose whether your donation goes toward the organization as a whole or a particular area you’re passionate about? Does your information stay confidential when you donate, or is it shared with other partnership organizations? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer to these questions, it depends on your goals as a donor and your personal preference.

If you’re interested in a charity’s financial information, you can visit charityfocus.ca, a database run by Imagine Canada in conjunction with Canada Revenue Agency of every registered charity in Canada. Here’s House of Friendship’s page, complete with financial information (which is also available here on our website). If you want more detailed information, you should feel comfortable asking questions by calling or emailing the organization—they should be happy to discuss financial information.

But you can’t always judge a charity by the numbers – not all charities report financials the same way so it can be hard to compare.  What can be more helpful is finding out more about how a charity if fulfilling its mission. How does it operate, and what kind of impact is it having?

One way to get an idea would be to read their annual reports from the past few years. If these aren’t available on their website, you can always ask and they should be happy to send them to you.  Many organizations have newsletters they can send you as well. If you want to get a real sense of how a charity works, call to arrange a tour, or volunteer a little bit.

At the end of the day only you can be the judge of whether or not a charitable organization fits with your values, and whether or not you feel a donation would make a positive impact in your community. If you have a list of causes you donate to and you’re confident in the charities you support, then good for you. If you feel like you’re unsure about where you should donate, hopefully there’s some advice here that can help you out. Remember, if you’re unsure of whether or not to donate to a particular charity, don’t be afraid to say no until you’ve asked and answered your questions. When you’re ready, dive in.  Happy giving!

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