The gift of philanthropy

Ways to donate directly to good causes

  • Breanne Edmonds poses with her 8th grade science class at Harlem Park Elementary-Middle School. Edmonds posted on a donor website that her class needed money for science supplies and strangers have donated the money. This is the fourth time she has done this. Her class previously got $190 to buy slides and this time got about $800 in donations.
Breanne Edmonds poses with her 8th grade science class at Harlem… (Photo by Monica Lopossay…)
November 26, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

So what do you give this holiday to the person who has everything — or simply doesn't need more things?

Consider the gift of philanthropy.

Charities are making it easier than ever. Many offer gift cards that recipients can use to make online donations to specific projects in their own backyard or across the globe. Donations can be small, with some groups accepting as little as $1 or $10.

"Not everyone is a Bill Gates who can influence society on such a massive scale," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer with the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, part of the Better Business Bureau. Charities are trying to connect with small donors to show that even tiny gifts can make a difference, he says.

This type of philanthropy, which allows donors to direct money to particular needs, appeals particularly to younger donors, who want to see how their money is used, says Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an organization that rates charities. While nonprofits still need traditional donations to cover administrative and fundraising costs, this kind of philanthropy has proven popular and is a growing trend.

As always, check out a charity before giving, through a website such as Guidestar.org or CharityNavigator.org. And be aware that gift cards expire, in which case unused funds might go to the nonprofit or be directed to a project of the charity's choosing.

Lots of nonprofits offer giving opportunities and can use the help. Here are just a few: 

Helping teachers help kids Public schools are financially stretched, but with DonorsChoose.org, you can directly donate to class projects across the country. Teachers, from kindergarten through high school, and other school officials post their unfunded needs online and explain how their students would benefit from a donation.

Breanne Edmonds, a science teacher at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, recently requested $690 for two Bunsen burners and two balances to weigh materials. In her post, Edmonds noted that the school is "a safe zone for many of the students" and that the youngsters are "eager to learn new and exciting things."

Her request was funded by nine donors within a month. "It's like a miracle," says Edmonds, who has received funding three other times for books and microscope slides. This time the donations came in faster than they had before.

The donation is a big help to Edmonds, who figures she spends $3,500 a year of her own money on school supplies. "Every week I'm buying something," the 26-year-old says. "It adds up."

Educators must clear certain hurdles and be vetted to get a project posted on DonorsChoose.org. Once a project is funded, teachers and students are required to send thank-you notes to donors, along with photos of the children using their new materials, says Thalia Theodore Washington, the website's East Coast vice president.

You can also buy a DonorsChoose gift card, which allows your friends and family members to pick the projects they want to help fund. The minimum donation is $1. "You can give them the chance to be a philanthropist on your dime," Theodore Washington says.

Donors can steer an entire donation to a project, or they can set aside a portion for DonorsChoose to cover its costs. Projects are posted online for up to five months. If a project doesn't get the needed funds, donors can redirect their donations to another project.

Since Maryland started participating three years ago, donors have contributed $972,509 to help 73,226 students.

DonorsChoose has some high-profile supporters. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert sits on the board, and last week Oprah Winfrey named the nonprofit as one of her favorite things.

Charity begins around the world GlobalGiving offers gift cards that allow recipients to make donations of $10 or more to about 1,200 projects worldwide, including 250 in the United States.

The range of projects is broad, ranging from animal rescue and human rights to disaster recovery and sports programs for educating children. One project uses soccer as a way to reach Kenyan youths with information about HIV/AIDS.

All projects are run by nonprofits, which are vetted by GlobalGiving, says Andrew Baldes, a marketing and communications associate at the organization. Eighty-five percent of donations go toward the project, with the rest supporting GlobalGiving and its training of nonprofits, Baldes says.

GlobalGiving donors have given $33 million since the group was founded in 2002, and nearly half of that has poured in over the past few years, Baldes says. He credits a growing awareness among individuals that $10 — an amount they might spend on parking — can make a tangible difference to someone else in the world.

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