One of the many things I hope readers of this site have taken away from their time with me is critical thinking when it comes to charitable endeavors. I make a habit of talking here, and elsewhere, about how charities work, and about how to research charities so that you know your money is being used well, for a cause you actually support, by people behaving in a way you think is ethical, sustainable, and reasonable. I talk about this a lot because it’s important to me; I think that charity is important, and I think that wasted money when it comes to making donations to organizations that don’t use them well is a crying shame.
A lot of charities are really struggling right now. Donations are down, government grants are down, matching funding is less available. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the community level. And that’s why, if you’re donating to charity or thinking about which charities to favour with your monies, I would like to strongly encourage you to support community organisations. There are a lot of reasons for this.
One is that community organisations tend to be more active on the ground. This isn’t always the case, mind; Doctors Without Borders, for example, is a very big international charity and they spend a lot of time on the ground. The Humane Society of the United States, by contrast, doesn’t actually run any humane societies. It runs educational campaigns, which are important, and also assists with animal rescue, but your local humane society? Is actually a community organisation. If you want your money to go further, donate it to organisations that are actively using it, right now. While education and outreach are both really important, right now, action on the ground is sorely needed.
You can also see your money at work. I like accountability. I’m a big fan of it. And it’s easy to see what my money is doing when I see it in action. Want to know how well a charity is operating? Pop into the office and ask for their annual reports. Ask members of the community about how well the charity is serving them. Visit the charity’s facilities. It’s a lot harder to do this when you’re sending money to a central office somewhere far away.
Keeping money in your community also has many tangible benefits. Many communities are poor and getting poorer. Donating to local groups makes those groups stronger, makes them more effective, and resists the outward flow of money. This contributes to economic independence and strength for your community; the charity you donate to will create local jobs. It will spend its money locally on supplies. It will spread your dollars around. You get double bang for your buck; the donation to the charity and the good that does, and the great things that happen when money stays local instead of flying out of the area.
There’s another reason to donate to local groups: They probably really need it. Community based organisations are a lot smaller, for obvious reasons. They are also less well known. When donations to charity start dropping, local groups are often the first to suffer, because those incremental little donations start to dry up. People not sure about whether to donate to the Red Cross or the local Food Bank might write a check to the Red Cross first, for a variety of reasons.
Local charities tend to be under publicised and lesser known. For example, many people are not aware that veterinary clinics usually maintain a slush fund for providing care to indigent patients. It’s not widely advertised, it’s usually highly discretionary, and the clinic could benefit immensely from periodic infusions of cash from regular patients. Adding $5 to your vet bill every visit may not mean a lot for you, but could make the difference between life and death. Likewise, lots of stores, especially in the winter, have informal charity efforts; bookstores providing books to low income people, grocers collecting food for food drives. Not well advertised, but there if you ask, and people are usually pleased to be asked.
People say that small communities are all about reaching out and helping each other. I’m not sure that’s always borne out, considering the way people behave, but I will say that small acts of charity go a lot further in your community than they will somewhere far away. And if you’re new to a community, locating local charities and finding some good causes to support might be a great way to learn more about the place you live in, the people who inhabit it, and the political issues it faces. And that, in my opinion, is good stuff to know about, now and later.
So, please, if you’re considering giving to charity this winter, or you’re asking people to give to charity in lieu of presenting gifts for the holidays, please, please consider giving locally. Local charities do a lot of good and important work, and they really need your help right now.
If you’re curious, my preferred holiday charity cause is Book Angels at Gallery Bookshop and Bookwinkles. The bookstore gets lists of local kids who do not have access to books, complete with basic demographic information, and gets books to all the kids on its list. (It’s a long list.) People can participate either by going in and selecting a specific kid (names and personal info are omitted, you get an age and some interests) and then going shopping, or donating cash the bookstore will use to buy books for children who haven’t been chosen by bookstore browsers.
Book Angels is really important to me, as a reader and a writer, because I grew up in a house surrounded by books, and it had a profound impact on who I developed into. Many children in this community do not have any books at all, or have very few books. All it takes is one book to open up a world of possibility; a book is an agent of change, and giving books to people can be a profoundly radical and important act. Book Angels changes lives in a very concrete way.