How to be a Better Donor:
1) Do the necessary due-diligence before donating.
All aid organizations are not created equal. Research organizations ahead of time to ensure your money will be put to good use. At the deepest level this would involve speaking to the recipients of the aid to uncover the quality of the work being done by the organization and the impact being made. When that’s not possible, it helps to speak to people who have seen the organization at work in the field to get their insider opinion. You can also evaluate an organization based on relevant press coverage, financial statements (including the publicly disclosed tax form 990 for US-based nonprofits), and web-based reviews. Also, comprehensive sites like givewell.org can provide more useful information than somewhat superficial review sites like charitynavigator.org.
2) Let the organization and recipients decide how to use the money.
The recipients of aid and the organizations working on their behalf know the needs of the community better than any outside donor. They also have a keen sense of which approaches are most effective in that specific context. Resist the temptation to dictate how your donation should be used. Trust that the organization you’ve selected is going to use your money in a way that makes the most sense for the people they’re helping.
3) Develop ties with aid organizations you know and trust.
One of the greatest challenges for donors is knowing which organizations to trust. There are countless small, grassroots organizations that are in desperate need of donations, but donors are often reluctant to trust their money to these groups due to occasional stories of money getting misused or stolen. Take the time to develop personal relationships with aid organizations to establish a feeling of trust in the organization’s leadership, approaches, and long-term impact. You might be able to develop these ties while traveling internationally, or by being connected to these groups through family and friends.
4) Give consistently to the same organization over long periods of time.
Non-profits are desperate for consistent donations to ensure their projects can continue long-term without interruption. Once you’ve found an organization you trust that’s doing excellent work, stay loyal to them for the long-haul. They’ll be able to do better work if they’re not constantly wasting time on fundraising.
5) Give money, not stuff.
In-kind donations are rarely useful to organizations abroad. When donating, it’s almost always better to give money. The aid organizations abroad can source the supplies locally with the money you provide. This allows them to get exactly what they need while also stimulating the local economy.
6) Beware of fads or “sexy aid” and invest in proven forms of effective aid, instead.
Avoid the tendency to jump from one aid trend to the next without having a deep understanding about whether or not the methodology is truly effective. The aid world is always claiming they’ve found the next panacea, but it’s essential to be skeptical of such claims. Often it’s the less “sexy” forms of aid (such as teacher training, deworming, or legal aid) that have the biggest impact. A good source of information regarding what types of aid projects have been proven to be most effective can be found through MIT’s Poverty Action Lab.
7) Consider donating anonymously instead of seeking credit for your generosity.
Many donors, unfortunately, are motivated not only by a desire to make the world a better place, but also by the desire to be noticed for their goodness. Be aware of your own motivations when you give, and explore whether or not you could feel just as good about your donation if your name didn’t appear on the annual report or on the plaque next to the school or well your money helped build.
8) Invest in transparent organizations.
Transparency is essential when it comes to international aid. Be suspicious if an aid organization is not willing to openly reveal their financial information or if they’re not very clear on their website or in publicity materials how the money will be spent. Invest in organizations that are open to telling you exactly how your money will be used.
9) Be aware of how aid organizations represent their recipients on websites/brochures.
How an organization portrays the people they’re helping in their online and printed materials is a very good indication of the ethos of the organization. Are the recipients depicted in an undignified or helpless way? Do the images feel like “poverty porn” or do they show the community members in a positive, resilient light? Avoid organizations that try to generate pity among potential donors by using pathetic looking images of the people they’re claiming to help.
10) As a donor, don’t be overly demanding with reporting requirements from aid agencies, but make sure there’s a degree of monitoring and evaluation going on.
Some donors are so adamant about receiving regular reports about how their money is being spent that the aid organizations end up spending more time writing reports than actually implementing the projects. Be reasonable when asking for feedback from organizations on how your donation is being used. While project monitoring is important, endless reporting requirements from donors prevent many aid organizations from being able to do their best work.
11) Invest in small, effective, grassroots organizations.
Often it’s the small, community-based aid organizations that are doing the best work in the field. These organizations also need your money a lot more than the larger aid organizations. However, they often have a harder time securing donations due to almost non-existent marketing budgets. Seek out small, effective organizations abroad who you trust and support. Your money will often go a lot further.
12) Be humble.
As a donor it’s important not to see yourself as anyone’s “savior.” Your contribution is important, but humility is essential.