For the last month, newsfeeds everywhere have been full of friends, family and celebrities throwing buckets of ice water over their heads. The Ice Bucket Challenge charges people with either throwing a bucket of ice water over their head or making a donation to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association. For every bucket, there also is a strong opinion about the moral validity of this successful fundraising campaign.
Many great arguments have been made for or against the challenge. Supporters point to the millions of dollars it has raised and the awareness it has created. Critics argue that throwing a bucket of water over your head is hardly altruistic and the money raised takes away donations from less trendy, but equally important causes.
I’m personally not going to take a side, because I think great points have been made on both sides. And while I’m sure some used the challenge purely as an excuse to post a video in their bathing suit, most people participating had their heart in the right place. However, it is blatantly clear that many people (no matter how well-intentioned) didn’t take the time to research the disease or the organization they were supporting.
ALS is a horrible disease with no known cure and its research is underfunded. There is no doubt that the millions of dollars raised are needed for research and treatment. Yet, there are tons of other groups that also need our money. We’re living in a time when government funding for health, education and human rights is being drastically cut. So this makes our donations even more important. Americans are very charitable, according to National Philanthropic Trust, 95% of households in the U.S. give to charity and 72% of all charitable donations are from individuals or families.
I think the most important thing we can take away from the challenge is that most have us have the opportunity to donate some amount of money to those in need and with that comes the responsibility to choose a worthwhile cause. In addition to our monetary contribution, we need to learn about these charities. The more we educate ourselves about the causes we find significant, the more we can help teach others and spread awareness of these important issues. Sorting through charities is an overwhelming and daunting task. Here are some strategies and things to consider when donating.
Choose a cause that you care about. This is the most important factor in your decision and how you should start narrowing down charities. Maybe you saw a relative suffer through cancer or a close friend is battling a rare disease. Choose something that has a meaning to you and start an internet search to find groups dedicated to that cause. There are tons of groups out there doing good work; this is your chance to help out where you think it’s most important.
Not all causes are equal. Some critics of the ALS challenge point to the fact that treatment for one person with ALS costs tens of thousands of dollars while that same amount of money could provide many more people in developing countries with lifesaving vaccinations or malaria medication. Helping one person with a rare disease will clearly cost more money than one with a known cure, and that’s OK, they still need your help. Again, choose what is most important to you and quantify your altruistic gift however you see fit.
Do your research. Delve deep into websites of the organizations that you’re considering. Read details about their mission, vision and programming to make sure it aligns with your values. Some groups might spend their funding on research while others give money directly to patients to help with medical costs. Both strategies are important, it’s up to you to choose where you want your dollar to go.
Ask questions. If you still have questions after visiting a website, ask! Call or email the organization to find out more. You might want additional information about its programs or are curious how many people will be helped by your gift. If you’re confused about something on their financial statement, ask them to explain. Don’t be immediately turned off by a slow response, it may just signal that a small organization is understaffed. However, when you do get a hold of someone they should be thrilled to answer your questions. If not, find another organization that values its donors.
Keep track of your money. Nonprofit organizations spend their money in three main categories: programming, fundraising and administration. In general, the more spent on programming the better. Read a group’s 990 tax forms and annual report to learn where your donation will go. These documents are confusing. Start at Guidestar and Charity Navigator, which are free websites that rate and review organizations and present the information in an easy to follow format.
Don’t feel pressured. If your inbox is anything like mine, it’s flooded with urgent donation requests from politicians and charities. These requests are rude and meant to induce guilt. They also create a false sense of urgency. Unless there’s a natural disaster, there’s likely no rush to donate. Take as much time as you need to make an informed decision. I promise they will still take your money when you’re ready.
Don’t give over the phone. Nonprofits often hire telemarketing companies to do their fundraising. These companies take a significant percentage of each contribution they obtain. If you like a group that you hear about over the phone, go to its website and donate directly.
Learn about tax deductions. You are entitled to a tax-deduction for charitable contributions. Nonprofit organizations must be registered as a 501 (c) organization to be tax deductible. This also guarantees they are actually a not-for-profit group. Check out an organization’s 501 (c) status and make sure to hold on to your receipts and thank-you letters to file with your taxes.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.