Ahh, there is that liberal guilt again!
April 20, 2011 7:18 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for a few pointers to well-regarded non-profits that focus on "social equality" (I may not be using the right term) - breaking povery cycles, education assistance, living wages for blue-collar work and so on. I don't know where to start, but maybe you can help me!

Over the past few years I have become more attuned to the shrinking of middle class in US, and poverty or near-poverty affecting progressively larger slices of society. I would like to expand my charitable donation range to include organizations that align to reverse the trend. However, I know very little of who is actually working in this field.

A few things I am looking for are:
- Organizations with very clear records in terms of transparency, funds use and agenda. I am hoping to find non-profits with records as clean as, say, Direct Relief or Doctors Without Borders have for disaster relief.
- Focus on the long term trends, rather than short term (i.e. not food banks and immediate rental assistance). Short-term is important too, but I am focusing on the long term for this particular question.
- Not primarily policy/politics oriented. This may not be entrirely possible, given that the growing class divide is a political current, but I would at least like to look for organizations for whom lobbying and candidate support is not a primary activity. This seems like something that would go well with the long-term focus above. As a very minimum bar, I would like to avoid organizations which are directly aligned to one political party or another.
- Primarily US-focused. Social equality is certainly a world-wide issue, and if there are organizations that work both within and outside US, I would like to hear about them. That said, I am currently looking for someone who is addressing these issues in US as one of primary locales.

Dear Metafilter, you are a wonderful community of intellectual people who understand that both charitable giving and social equality are complex, nuanced, and have many sides and viewpoints. I am sure that this thread will not wade into the murky (and chatfilter-y) waters of arguing which charity is more morally worthwhile than other, and stick mainly to the criteria above :)
posted by blindcarboncopy to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
One of the big questions you might ask yourself is whether you want to go local or national. The impact of local charity donation can be amazing to watch; a smaller organization can do a lot with less, and you can see the results close up. You can also work with a local organization on things like in-kind donations (materials, services, etc.) which might be easier to obtain but make a bigger difference than just giving money -- especially since the organization probably wouldn't spend money on some of those things themselves. I know you said you wanted to focus on the long-term, but certain short-term aids might make a big difference to some groups.

Example: This year, my friend's Oscar party chose to give its $2000 to a local domestic abuse prevention group, who had lost a HUGE chunk of funding in this year's budget. A friend (from a completely different circle) volunteers for them, and she was so honored to be able to tell the party guests how the money would help. But privately, she'd told us how the organization is heavily staffed by volunteers working long shifts at weird hours, and how their ancient microwave only heated things for 20 seconds at a time. ("When you only want something a LITTLE warm!") And, of course, they're running on such a tight budget that they'd never spend money on something better.

So we donated some money, but we also donated a microwave. (We could have gotten a Goodwill special, but we went to Target.) Our friend was blown away -- and so were her supervisors, who nearly cried at both the donation and the microwave. Now the volunteers don't have to go out for dinner, or bring something cold, or stand around trying to reheat it with 18 cycles. The environment is much more comfortable; ergo, people will volunteer for longer stretches and/or bring in others.

A local organization may have a smaller footprint, which could also help with transparency. Best of all, the personal connection you could make with a local group (if you so choose), even if you're anonymous, can't be underestimated.
posted by Madamina at 7:51 PM on April 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Human Rights Watch, the International Rescue Committee, Amnesty International, Oxfam America, and the American Red Cross all focus on precisely what you ask for. However, minus the American Red Cross, the rest do not majorly focus on efforts in the US, though all of the organizations have a number of projects that specifically concern US citizens. I recommend these over many others because they are (almost always) very clear about their project/research methodology and how their funds are used. The American Red Cross had reporting problems with their relief efforts in Katrina, but to my knowledge, that is the only major transparency problem they have had in awhile.

The IRC (headquarters), HRW and Amnesty focus primarily on conducting studies for policy purposes. Neither of them engage in the kind of lobbying you are probably concerned about (like the NRA using campaign funds to influence members of Congress), though they of course use their work to try and persuade lawmakers to make progressive choices.

The IRC (field offices), Oxfam and the Red Cross focus on projects rather than on studies/research, and are probably your best bet for donating money to projects that go towards sustainability, capacity strengthening, and equity for the long-term.

However, as someone in the international development field, I wouldn't overlook supporting organizations like HRW or Amnesty. Donating money to them may not have the immediate gratitude of donating to a specific project, but the work they do cannot be done by most NGOs, and in my opinion, serves as an important voice in the discourse of international development. Plus, organizations like the Red Cross and Oxfam are always looking for volunteers, so you can help these projects in other ways.
posted by msk1985 at 8:03 PM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: I believe education is key to improvement in areas of poverty and because I want to focus my very limited amounts very carefully, I like to support the efforts of good teachers in the neediest schools in my city. I do this through Donors Choose.
posted by Anitanola at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: Operation HOPE? I have been very impressed in my dealings with them, although now that I'm looking online their charity ratings aren't so good. But their primary focus is stopping the cycle of poverty through financial education, getting people refinancing on loans with outrageously high interest, that sort of thing. If you ever have a chance to see the founder, John Hope Bryant, speak, don't miss it--he's amazing.
posted by Violet Hour at 8:50 PM on April 20, 2011

I'd suggest you look locally, because most of the great organizations I know focus in California.

One question that I hope will help you get better answers -- What exactly do you want them to do? I ask because you rule out service provision (job training, preschool), policy (agency decisions and legislation), and electoral work (voting out corrupt cronies and voting in people who will sincerely represent the majority's best interests), so how do you want them to make a difference? How do you want them to create change? Litigation like the ACLU?

I know that lobbying is a dirty word. But all it means is advocating about a decision directly to those who will make the decision, whether those decision-makers are voters, the staff of an agency (like the Department of Housing and Community Development), or members of Congress. You would not want to fund a group that would tell a member of Congress "vote no on this bill because it hurts the poor," or that would train people from disadvantaged communities to speak up to the elected officials who represent them? If not, can you please explain more about what you have in mind, and how that helps address long-term barriers to equity?
posted by slidell at 9:08 PM on April 20, 2011

Best answer: Not primarily policy/politics oriented. This may not be entrirely possible, given that the growing class divide is a political current, but I would at least like to look for organizations for whom lobbying and candidate support is not a primary activity.

Federal tax law strictly limits lobbying by nonprofits. This PDF is the easiest-to-read reference guide I could find on a quick search.

The issues in which you're interested are a huge area of focus for nonprofits. The following are private foundations, not public charities (i.e. their source of funding was privately established, they don't solicit from the public), but looking through their featured grantees will give you a sense of the many, many approaches out there, and maybe point you toward some organizations that spark your interest.

Ford Foundation
WK Kellogg Foundation
Annie E. Casey Foundation
Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
Jessie Ball Dupont Fund

And speaking as someone who works in development for a large public university, I'll bring to your attention that large public universities typically operate all sorts of programs directly serving their community.
posted by desuetude at 10:06 PM on April 20, 2011

The YMCA believe it or not.
posted by noxetlux at 8:09 AM on April 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for insighttful answers! I now have my research cut out for me, these are great pointers to start.

@Slidell, I may not have explained myself well. Given the triad that you outlined (service provision, policy and electoral work), I find myself looking mainly for service providers, but ones that focus on long-term improvement rather than addressing immediate needs. Things like educational opportunities for children and adult, financial assistance, job training, and so on, rather than food banks and night-by-night homeless shelters (again, I am not saying these things are not needed, just not within the scope of this question).

Scrolling through the answers above, Oxfam America and Operation HOPE seem most closely aligned to what I had in mind, but I will certainly continue exploring. The private foundations referenced by desuetude are also super-interesting, even if they do not solicit funding from individuals.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 10:48 AM on April 21, 2011

I think given your focus on service delivery you're going to be looking for local, community-based organizations. The national organizations that work in these areas tend to either be intermediaries working to support local orgs, networks of local orgs, or players in the policy/advocacy/think tank space.

That said, it's my understanding that the United Way recently went through a strategic planning process that reframed their mission to be more in the terms you're talking about. I think the way this is playing out differs in different local UWs, but it's worth looking into.

Neighborworks works with community-based orgs around the country, with a focus on housing issues but they do financial education etc as well.

In the Northwest there's Northwest Area Foundation - they're at least partially an operating foundation, not sure if they solicit individual donations, but like desuetude suggested you could see who they are giving their grants to.

In NYC there's NEDAP - they do advocacy/policy but other work as well. Also Seedco, which is more focused on workforce. And Drum Major Institute - more of a think tank, though.
posted by yarrow at 11:40 AM on April 21, 2011

blindcarboncopy, feel free to MeMail me if you have questions about the differences between types of nonprofits (and types of foundations) regarding what they can do and how they're funded.
posted by desuetude at 6:57 AM on April 22, 2011

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