A Five-Step Guide to Effective PhilanthropyS

Disheartened by the crash-and-burn philanthropy debacles of the past few months? Don't be! For every Komen or Kony 2012 fiasco, there are dozens of excellent charities that deserve your attention. We've compiled a charity guide for people who want to donate effectively, but don't have large amounts of time or money to spend.

Step #1: Pick a charity.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, start with Give Well or Charity Navigator, which are both excellent tools for those who lack ample time to research their options. These sites do all the hard work for you by sifting through ineffective charities so that you can get the best bang for your buck. Give Well focuses all of its efforts on selecting a few top-notch charities — Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative are currently their top two picks — while Charity Navigator allows users to search through hundreds of top-rated charities to find a perfect match — here's their list of "10 Top-Notch Charities", which is just one of their many helpful "Top 10" lists.

If you're not passionate about a particular cause, Give Well is probably the right website for you. "Conventional wisdom says to start with reflecting on your own principles, but we take a different perspective," said Elie Hassenfeld, Give Well's Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director. "If you want to accomplish as much good as possible, it's better to be open to all sorts of different charities." Give Well focuses on international charities, because its founders believe it's easier for smaller contributions to make a bigger difference in poorer countries — here's a more detailed explanation of why they believe your dollar goes further overseas.

Have a more specific idea in mind? Try Charity Navigator, where you can easily search by term (i.e., "breast cancer"), state, or rating — all charities are judged on their financial health, accountability, and transparency. "Above all, be proactive," said Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator's Vice President of Marketing and CFO. "Rather than wait for someone to send you a video or ask you to support a walk on Facebook, figure out what it is you want to support and look for a charity doing that work."

Both Hassenfeld and Miniutti cautioned against giving money to disaster relief programs instead of "everyday" aid programs. "Tsunamis and earthquakes get a lot of attention in the media, but there's a lot of suffering that's going on daily," Hassenfeld said. "Use the emotion you feel after a disaster and give it to the very best charity that you can find." Here's more from Give Well regarding disaster relief and everyday aid. They also stressed that it's important to consider which charities need your money most — Give Well has taken some "outstanding" charities off its main list because they have limited short-term room for more funding — and how they'll actually use your cash; here's Charity Navigator has a list of 10 inefficient charities.

~~Special Bonus Lady Edition~~

Depressed about slashed family planning funds and shuttered women's health clinics in the United States? Of course you are! We asked Hassenfeld and Miniutti to recommend some domestic women's health charities. Both recommended the Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends registered nurses to visit low-income, first-time mothers to help with prenatal health, child care, and personal life management. Search terms such as "women" and "public benefit" and you'll find a bevy of four-star choices on Charity Navigator that will make you feel better about the future of American women faster than you can say "Rick Santorum."

Jessica Mack, a gender rights advocate and consultant, recommended a few other options:

Support abortion funds in the US! One of my favorite domestic women's charities is the National Network of Abortion Funds. I am a volunteer hotline advocate for the CAIR Project, which is an abortion fund that gives to women in Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington. There's basically zero overhead, and all the money goes to women seeking abortions (we don't cover the procedure fully, but help them make their financial goal). Given all the shit that's happening across the US right now, donating to NNAF is a very real and direct way to counteract.

Other domestic groups I recommend looking into - domestic violence shelters; community groups/shelters for new immigrant women (Refugee Women's Alliance is one I love in Seattle), local girls' empowerment efforts (Girls Rock Camp, Reel Grrls, etc. ) Groups whose very existence is an important statement about girls' rights and the women they can become. Also - support abortion funds, but also teen/young mother programs! Teen Success is a program that was started by Planned Parenthood in CA and is now its own thing.

Step #2: Consider how much (and how often) you want to donate.

How much money should you donate to charity, and how often should you give? That's obviously a very personal question, but we were interested to hear what the experts had to say. "In my own giving, I give about as much to charity as I would give to a really big purchase that I'm being really thoughtful about," Hassenfeld said. He sent us a link to philosopher Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" calculator, which calculates how much you "should" give according to his framework. However, It's more important to get into the habit of giving regularly than it is to give big bucks, said Hassenfeld: "The earlier you start giving, the more you learn about how to give effectively, and that way you're more likely to do more good."

Miniutti recommended that those strapped for cash consider giving small monthly donations instead of one annual lump sum. "Charities appreciate monthly giving, even if it's $5, $10, or $20," she said. "And that way, it's not as financially painful."

Mack suggests giving on behalf of friends: "I give my friends Kiva loan cards, or sponsor baby elephants for them, etc," she said. "It's a way to get charitable giving on people's radar, and engage people who might not otherwise."

#3: Give cash, not goods or specific donations.

If you've gotten this far, you've hopefully picked a charity (or two) that you can trust, and worked out a payment plan. Now, sit back and trust them with your cash. "People running charities are the ones who have the expertise about what's needed most and how to help," Hassenfeld said. "When you give cash, you put them in the driver's seat." Well-meaning donors often send wares such as canned goods and clothes — especially after natural disasters — which end up unused. Cold hard cash is the best way to ensure that charities can actually utilize your contributions. Mack added that it's better to give wholeheartedly than to nitpick. "People have a tendency to get caught up in wanting to give to very specific things, (like $XX buys one pack of pills for a poor woman in Rwanda!) but most of that is a marketing gimmick," Mack said. "If you find an organization you trust and support, you should give with trust and all your heart - let them decide where to put that money and how it's best used."

#4. Consider alternate forms of aid.

Can't find a charity that inspires you? Here are some other options! Entrepreneurship is "generally empowering and reserves agency for all involved," said Mack, who recommended Kiva, which provides microloans to people all over the world, and Kickstarter as great ways to invest in worthy projects. Echoing Green and Starting Bloc are other platforms for women-focused projects. Give back to your community by using websites like VolunteerMatch to find ways to get involved in local efforts that might make you feel more invested than far-away charities, or consider mentoring young adults.

#5. DIY.

Give Well and Charity Navigator are livesavers, but both Hassenfeld and Miniutti recommend taking at least a small amount of time to research charities on your own before you finally decide where you want to donate your time and/or money. "One great takeaway from the Kony 2012 campaign is that donors should always take an extra step and do a little bit of research on their own to make sure their money is going where they want it to go," Miniutti said. She suggests simply visiting an organization's website — they'll usually post a breakdown of their finances — or giving them a call with any questions. For good measure, here's a super concise Give Well explainer on why it's important to fund the right programs, along with some tips on how to tell whether a charity's evidence holds up to scrutiny.

Feel better? Have you forgotten about Susan Handel and Jason Russell already? We hope so. Have fun exploring your philanthropic options, and feel free to leave your own charity suggestions in the comments.

Image via mangostock/Shutterstock.