Charitable donations tend to spike around the holidays. As beautifully wrapped presents pile up and our bellies fill with holiday excesses, our desire to share the wealth increases. The urge to make a donation or volunteer at a soup kitchen for an afternoon is strong: according to Charity Navigator, 12 percent of all annual charitable donations happen in the last three days of the year. But is your $25 check to the ASPCA really doing the most good? Are you really helping by getting behind the line and serving up chili to the needy? We talked to four Chicago charities to find out the most effective ways to make a difference.
When in doubt, money is a safe bet
The majority of the 57,000 individual donors who made contributions to the Greater Chicago Food Depository in the 2015 fiscal year made monetary donations, says Jim Conwell, the organization’s head of communications. But that’s not to minimize the importance of the nearly 20,000 donors who contributed more than 100,000 hours of service.
This year, the Food Depository served more than 800,000 people and Conwell maintains that this would be impossible without an equal combination of time, money and physical goods donated.
That being said, online monetary donations are probably the most efficient way to impact the community.
“Online donations are a great way to put support wherever it’s needed most,” Conwell says. “Be it children’s programs or purchasing fresh produce or putting trucks on the road. Those donations make so much of that happen.”
Goods and time can be just as critical
In the same vein, Joel Williams, the executive director of PADS Lake County homeless shelters, says money is very often the key to keeping a nonprofit going. However, he also acknowledges that running a homeless shelter depends heavily on all possible areas of donation: from time to goods to money.
“As a homeless shelter, obviously there are many things that people need,” Williams says. “Socks, hats, coats, gloves, the real basics … these are things we provide on a regular basis, and to have people willing to donate these items is extraordinarily helpful.”
But all the socks and volunteers in the world won’t keep the lights on or the water hot. These are the costs of running a business: and nobody gets helped if the monetary donations don’t come in.
“In general, the most difficult [donation] to get is monetary,” Williams says. “I don’t know if it’s the most important, but it’s the most difficult to get.”
Build a relationship with the charities
A key part of running a charity effectively and making sure nothing goes to waste is having good relationships with donors, says Brian Floriani, founder of Bernie’s Book Bank.
“In broad strokes, we use 80 to 85 percent of [the donations] we receive,” Floriani says. “We work hard at telling people what we want and don’t want.”
Williams, of PADS, agrees — he says one of the biggest mistakes people make in donating to a charity is assuming whatever they donate will do the most good.
“One of the things we try and do is have that open relationship with donors and supporters so they’re providing something that can be used by the people we serve,” Williams says. “Having that conversation with the charity before is the best way to make sure giving that gift is used effectively.”
Especially with larger charities, it’s important to make sure your donation is effecting the kind of change you envision.
Do your research
Paula Fasseas, founder and chair of PAWS Chicago animal shelter, says that a lack of research into charitable organizations is one of the biggest issues she sees. Specifically with regards to animal shelters, Fasseas says making sure the charity does boots-on-the-ground work in your community is vital.
“If you’re focusing on helping animals in your community, [make sure] the shelter you’re donating to really does help your community,” Fasseas says. “Some of these organizations are very large and they’re more communications-oriented instead of performing life-saving work.”
Floriani agrees, citing sustainable, lasting impact as the most important key to a successful charity.
Focus your investment
Instead of donating small sums to numerous different charities, Floriani suggests choosing just two or three that you feel passionate about and making a more significant donation to each.
“Ultimately I think it makes all donors be more critical of where you’re giving your money,” Floriani says. “I think you get more out of it when you’re more invested in it.”
Doing even a little research can help you determine whether or not your donation will have the envisioned end result.
Getting in touch with a charity that aligns with your passions is the best way to go about making lasting change, Williams says. If you care about the cause, you’re more likely to do more than just donate money, which is exactly what charities need.
“If [someone is] giving in all three categories, chances are it’s going to be a sustainable long-term relationship,” Floriani says.
Ultimately, the most effective way to donate to a charity is to do so thoughtfully. One afternoon of serving soup at a shelter the day after Christmas likely won’t do nearly as much as a concentrated effort to contribute efficiently over the course of a year.
“There’s never a wrong time to donate or get involved, but we have over 500 food drives this holiday season,” Conwell says. “We need people to volunteer other times of the year; we need volunteers every week.”
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