Put your charity dollars on the line locally for once

In the aftermath of the election, I watched a number of major civil rights and social justice organizations pull down millions of dollars in donations. I don’t begrudge groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood the money — certainly they’ll use it for a variety of important things. But it is critical to talk about how people disburse charitable donations, especially as many people are being urged to resist the depredations of the Trump Administration via one-time or recurring donations to important causes. Surely subscribing to a group working on an issue is a great way to use your money, right?

Well, sort of. These groups are big picture national groups working on huge issues, and your monies will be well-spent on things you care about. But while you’re keeping your eyes on the national level, there are some causes close to home, probably in your own back yard, that are being neglected.

Here’s the thing: Many local charities don’t have very much money because they lack the size, clout, and fundraising engines of huge national groups. Your local environmental defense organisation isn’t the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council. It’s operating on a shoestring with direct action on the ground to protect local and regional natural resources. It is doing very important work that you may benefit from, even if you’re not aware of it, and with a whole lot less money.

The size issue is one thing, but so is the fact that it’s less well-known. And, in come years, the amount of money available will shrink even more as the government defunds grants. Groups that have relied on money from state and federal grants to support their operations are facing a huge loss of funding. At the same time, some of their local supporters may pull funding because they’re losing income and can’t afford to keep helping them. In addition, some of the people who might give them cash are choosing instead to route it to national groups, thinking in the sense of the ‘greater good.’ Thus, the donation that might go to a local clinic goes to Planned Parenthood.

Depending on the organisation under discussion, it’s less likely your funds will be used for the provision of direct support and services to individuals. The ACLU isn’t there to defend every single person caught in a civil rights issue. It chooses powerful test cases that will establish legal precedent, and fights hard to defend them — which is important, but doesn’t equate to helping every single person who crosses their doors. If you care about trans bathroom access, for example, the ACLU is working on litigation. Groups like the Transgender Law Center and Lambda legal are more likely to provide a wider array of legal services. Your local LGBQT center, on the other hand, helps actual LGBQT people every day.

This is not a zero sum game. Supporting national groups doesn’t meant people don’t support local ones, and vice-versa, and plenty of national and international groups do direct services, like Scarleteen, which offers sexual education and support to youth worldwide. Sometimes donations to groups like the National Network of Abortion Funds have a trickledown effect, allowing local groups to benefit from disbursements even as they provide direct service (payments for abortion care) rather than activities like lobbying and litigation (which are also important!). National groups provide grants and support to regional ones all the time. Donating to individual regional chapters of local groups can also keep money in your community, being used on direct action work. There’s no easy one-shot when it comes to how to use your charity dollars the most effectively.

But I encourage you to think about local groups, for a variety of reasons. You don’t have to, but you may find that your dollars go further on the local level, or will support things that directly concern you. This isn’t a matter of selfishness — maybe you’re worried about homeless LGBQT youth in your community, or environmental protection as your community faces major development, or getting legal services in place to help immigrants even though you aren’t one, or can afford private legal assistance if you are. Your $10 monthly donation could make a big difference on the local level, especially if you round up ten friends to do it with you. Matching, with another $10 to a complementary national group, is still an option!

The smaller, more regional, more isolated, and more independent a group is, the more it probably needs your help. That doesn’t mean you should be handing out cash willy-nilly. As with any charity, you should do your due diligence. Who serves on the board? What is the charity’s aim? What kinds of projects has it worked on? If it is a 501c(3), what do its financials look like? What is the general ethos of the organisation? What is its reputation in the community, especially among those it purports to help? Does it have metrics for tracking success? How old is it? These are all things to think about as you consider where you want to put your money.

Local groups deserve more love than they’ve been getting of late. It’s easy to go the name recognition route, zeroing in on a national organisation that does things you care about and has a proved track record backed up by an extensive reputation. And if you don’t have a lot of time to research, going that route can definitely be a good idea. But it’s worth just scoping out what’s happening in your own community, first, because you might be surprised by what you find.

Image: Jelly Fungi, Bernard Spragg, Flickr