I want to give money away. I can't seem to figure out how.
March 19, 2015 10:19 AM   Subscribe

I'm done with charitable organizations. I'm looking to help real people in real situations. I need help figuring out how to find these people and help them out in the least dramatic way possible.

Last weekend, I drove by a home that burnt down in my neighborhood to see how things were looking. The family was outside sorting through things (kids and parents) and they had a sign up that read 'Need basics. Anything helps." I was touched so I pulled over and handed one of the adults the money I had in my pocket ($120). They were super appreciative and then I went on about my day.

I was struck by how that type of giving made me feel so much better and fulfilled as a human being than, say, the $5k that I give to the Red Cross every year. In general, I'm discouraged by traditional charitable organizations because I can't really see where my donation goes. Couple that with the dubious nature of some of these groups (and the associated research required before I feel comfortable) and I'm kinda looking for a new way to give back to my community.

Some problems: Outright giving people money that I think look poor or in need is insulting and awkward. Paying for people's stuff at the grocery store can create a scene. I've asked some organizations in the past how I can have the most impact on individual people and they don't know what to do with me.

Example: I called up the local grade school last week to see how I could help. I offered to buy 50 bikes and bring them down to the school for kids that need them and they didn't even know how to respond to that. They said they'd get back to me but they haven't yet. They told me they had a school supply drive next month where I could donate art supplies if I wanted.

I'm looking to make a real impact on my community and have the 'give back budget' to do it ($20k). How can I find real people that need a helping hand that I can help with the least amount of drama and red tape?
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you'd enjoy making gifts via ModestNeeds.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:25 AM on March 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

A lot of folks I know/know of who've needed immediate cash for concrete goals set up pages on indiegogo, gofundme, and other crowd sourcing platforms. Maybe search those sites for people in your geographic area?
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:26 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Reddit has a /r/assistance and a /r/Food_Pantry, and I was also going to suggest looking through crowdfunding sites.

But, do you not know anybody who knows anybody, etc? It should not take too many degrees of separation to find a place with holes to be filled.

If you are really too many degrees removed you could think about trying to rope a few well-heeled friends together and having a micro-networking thing where you all put the word out and just sit back and take referrals from people who know you and know a person in need. There is a (not small) local group of women in my area who try to do this and there are certainly others elsewhere.

Also, read the local newspapers. House fires and schools in need are all over community papers.
posted by kmennie at 10:38 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Contact your area public school district. Ask if there are families in need of anything and what they need and where you can drop those items off. Or talk to teacher friends or people you know who know teachers. Teachers know very well what families need help and have quick access to providing donations directly to them.
posted by zizzle at 10:43 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

If it were me, I'd make a friend at a church or a federally-qualified health clinic, or some other organization that provides a specific type of help to people, but can't really provide other types of help.

In my city, it's a free counseling center that runs on volunteer social workers, counselors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists and has only one staff person. She's ALWAYS putting out the word for help with specific needs the people they consult with have, that go beyond therapy. This program is run by a church, but the counseling is not religious.

For example, if a person needs legal help, she calls some catholic lawyers she knows who do occasional pro bono work. If someone needs therapy, but doesn't have gas money to get there, she'll put out the word that she needs prepaid gas cards; she often asks for walmart gift cards. There are often struggling youth or women leaving abuse situations who need bedding, or a dresser, or a table and chairs, or a suit for a job interview.

You could have a lot of satisfaction from this kind of giving, but you need a front line person who knows that you're willing to give.

(Giving a school 50 bicycles brings some liability to the school, and requires that they find a source for kids helmets. Nobody is ready to move on that kind of donation, quickly.)
posted by vitabellosi at 10:54 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Be the person coordinating and picking up and thanking the people who donate 50 bikes. And then coordinate their distribution, use, and maintenance. For instance.

If you just want to donate bikes to schools specifically, memail me and I may be able to help you find a program in your area.

For $20k you could take a year or four off work and work full time on volunteering wherever you see fit. Many small organizations need committed volunteers as much or more than money. Your money can buy them your commitment to their cause.
posted by aniola at 10:56 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also, look at DonorsChoose, where school teachers tell the community what they need in order to make a real difference in kids' education, and you get to fund the project(s) of your choice. School supplies and technology in the classroom can be the difference between success and failure for kids who are trying to use education as a way out of poverty.
posted by decathecting at 10:58 AM on March 19, 2015 [11 favorites]

I know you say you're "done" with charitable organizations, but they are the ones with the administrative organization and contacts in the community to know what is needed, so I don't think I'd write them off entirely.

I think you should look for a local organization with a mission that interests you, and contact it and say that you're looking to make a specific kind of targeted donation towards their mission. For example, in my area there is an organization that provides backpacks with extra food to school kids to tide them over the weekends or school breaks when the free breakfast and lunches aren't available. I'm sure if someone came to them and said, "what specific thing can I support for $X," they could come back to you with 10 things in a hot minute.

That would scratch your itch for a very tangible, visible use of your money while working within an established structure to avoid the awkwardness of offering someone a handout, or approaching someone (like your experience with the school) who didn't have the administrative ability/energy/creativity to deal with your offer.
posted by msbubbaclees at 10:59 AM on March 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Also, think about what you want your giving to do. If what you want it to do is make you feel good, then I think you should probably just get a bunch of $50 bills and start handing them out to homeless people. And it's fine to use your money to make yourself feel good; that's what most of us spend most of our disposable income on. If what you like is to see the look in someone's eye when you've just made their life a lot better with money, you can do that.

If, however, you want to make a measurable difference in the world, then I think you need to think about the fact that there are other people, like folks who run charitable organizations, who have the skills and training to know better than you do how to do that. And it may not give you the same immediate happy feeling. But there may be a trade-off between what's going to make you happy and what's going to help others, and you need to decide how much of the money should go to the former as opposed to the latter.
posted by decathecting at 11:02 AM on March 19, 2015 [21 favorites]

kiva micro loans

If you never ask for the money back but keep loaning then it is as good as a donation.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:02 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I could also hook you up directly with a school that serves children in need who would definitely make use of offers like the one for bikes. Chicagoland area, if that helps.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:07 AM on March 19, 2015

I have some thoughts here about what helps the homeless. I am homeless and it really makes my day when someone gifts me something directly. That helps me a helluva lot more than the programs intended to help me. Cash is always especially welcome (for reasons I explain on the blog a bit).

Once, a guy drove up to me on a motorcycle and stopped. He never said a word and because of his helmet, I couldn't see his face. He pulled out a wallet and gave me a $50 bill. It was late in the month, so I was in desperate need of money. He winked at me and drove off. I also once read an article about a guy who wore a gorilla mask to hand out $50 bills.

I don't have money. I still struggle to get by every month. But it is a space I have thought about. I have wondered how best to help other people and how to do so without it turning into awkwardness or drama. I think this is inherently tough to do and that's why we have charitable organizations and programs to insulate The Haves from The Have Nots they would like to help.

Having said that, here is something I think about:

I eat at Chipotle a great deal. I am on the street and I can get a single taco for under $3 and it's healthy. Or I can get a small cheese quesadilla and a side of beans for under $3 (again: it's healthy -- food quality really matters to me and a good meal is hard to come by on the street). I have thought about, if I ever have money, offering to have a meal with a panhandler, take them to Chipotle, let them buy whatever they want, talk to them a bit or have a hand-out of some sort (I am thinking business-card sized) to let them know what the cheap options are and give them a Chipotle gift card before we part ways.

In addition to the time I have spent on the street, years ago, I had a class on homelessness. Like me, most folks on the street have some sort of serious health problems. I strongly believe that those need to be addressed to help homeless people get their act together and get back to a more normal life. I am resolving my health issues and my productivity is going up. Part of the reason that is happening is because I know a lot about food and I eat super healthy. Most people on the street are not doing that. I think if you could help people not just have a little more in the way of resources, but spend it on healthy food, you could start making a real difference in the lives of homeless people in your local area.

There is a man in San Diego that has devoted his retirement to helping homeless people. You can find articles about him online and find out what he does: For San Diego's Homeless, One Man Offers Hope

On preview: In addition to kiva, there are always online drives of various sorts to help people with things like medical bills.
posted by Michele in California at 11:13 AM on March 19, 2015 [8 favorites]

Outright giving people money that I think look poor or in need is insulting and awkward. Paying for people's stuff at the grocery store can create a scene.

People who are genuinely in need aren't going to make your giving awkward or act insulting. If they do, they don't really need the money or their pride is keeping them from acknowledging the truth about their circumstances. If that happens, walk away with your money and give it instead to someone who will be genuinely grateful for your willingness to share from your bounty. Some people are poor because of their poor choices, and unfortunately you can't change them by rescuing them.

Have you considered giving anonymously? Carry envelopes to tuck money into, and give them to people in need saying, "A guy over there asked me to give you this. I don't know who he is, and I don't see him now."

You can also do this through churches - they know who in their organization is most in need of help. Again - they can help you give anonymously, or you can reveal who is giving but have the church deliver or oversee distribution of the funds if that's more comfortable.

I'd spent almost all my adult life giving to my church but never directly seeing or controlling where the funds went. Then I decided I wanted to be more directly involved, so I spent a couple of years instead giving directly where I saw a need - sometimes to nonprofits fulfilling a mission I felt strongly about, sometimes directly to individuals or families for specific needs. I loved it! Paying it forward is extremely rewarding.
posted by summerstorm at 11:20 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

In Utah there is the HEAT program, they help pay power bills, and heat bills.
posted by Oyéah at 11:27 AM on March 19, 2015

It's possible that the local grade school in your area may not have impoverished students. Calling up schools in low income neighborhoods might be a good way for you to find families that are struggling to make ends meet. Talk to principals or teachers, they'll point you in the right direction. I used to volunteer as an SAT tutor at schools in low income areas of Los Angeles - the stories some of these kids can tell are heartbreaking, and their basic education suffers as a result of it.

If you're open to it, churches and mosques are good places to find individuals or families that need help. A mosque I used to visit had weekly lunches for poorer individuals and would give away brown bags of leftovers as well.

Finally, every Christmas at work, we have drives to sponsor 2-3 families through the Salvation Army. We buy them the gifts they've requested. While we don't actually get to meet the families, we occasionally will receive letters and thank you notes that are always super amazing to read.

Thank you for wanting to give back to your community in this way!
posted by Everydayville at 11:38 AM on March 19, 2015

They told me they had a school supply drive next month where I could donate art supplies if I wanted.

Do this! They have infrastructure and staffing set up to handle something like this; they don't for random one-off donations of things like bikes. I understand the impulse to donate directly, but please do listen to what the people or organizations tell you they need or want most.
posted by rtha at 11:40 AM on March 19, 2015 [4 favorites]

Oh, and also, sometimes people in need are closer than you think they are. My family is very comfortable, but recently my mom found out that a second cousin of hers was a struggling single mom of three. She now helps buy groceries for the family on a monthly basis. Obviously, these are delicate situations that may not apply to you. It may be worth asking around within your family if they know of extended members that could use a helping hand.
posted by Everydayville at 11:43 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

How can I find real people that need a helping hand that I can help with the least amount of drama and red tape?

Read the newspaper. I live in a small town and it's very very obvious who is in sudden need of cash by who has had a house fire, a death in the family, a tax sale or whatever.

Example: I called up the local grade school last week to see how I could help

The grade school possibly does not have infrastructure to support a bike giveaway program, even if they think it's a terrific idea. It's a good idea to find ways to give money that will either be direct aid (i.e. "Your house burned down, here's $500 to get a new couch and table and chairs") or go to an organization that has the support structure to handle turning cash into support that helps people. Not that it's not a great idea to give away a ton of bikes, it is, but you have to be solving a problem for other people with your money also, not just giving people a project because you want to do a good thing. The school told you specifically "We need art supplies" and that is a thing you should do. If you don't want to do that, do a little introspection about what specifically you want to accomplish with your charitable giving.

You might also want to give money to places that don't have paid infrastructure. I'm thinking of something like Food Not Bombs, Books to Prisoners or the local food shelves or emergency fuel/housing organizations. Often these are staffed by volunteers but they know where the greatest needs are in the community. You could also donate material things to organizations that never have enough of them like cat litter to the local shelter or stamps to the local library (for interlibrary loans, if they do things that way).

You can also talk to the emergency services people in your community who definitely know who has suffered a loss recently (from houses burning down to people being arrested and leaving the family stuck) or do something like donate a ton of teddy bears to the local victims services unit who gives them away to kids who are getting therapy/social assistance for terrible things that happened to them. Or purchase a bunch of quilts for the local hospice. Or go pay everyone's layaway tab at the local toy store.

I think it might be helpful for you to think about what you want to SUPPORT and not just make a list of things you don't like about what you've already tried. There are needs everywhere.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on March 19, 2015 [9 favorites]

Find organizations that run transitional housing programs. See if they will help you coordinate direct donations to the people in the program to assist them with getting on their feet, setting up their apartments, etc.

You have to find the right organization that will allow you to do this, but it can be done.

It's a little like the holiday "adopt-a-family" thing, but you can do it year-round.
posted by Gorgik at 12:02 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

What about skipping the big orgs and donating to a clinic or small nonprofit organization that does work in your community?

I have both volunteered for and benefited from the services of our local women's community clinic, and they make a real direct impact on real people with great need. Many of their clients are homeless or marginally-housed, and those clients are able to receive care that keeps them healthy and improves their everyday lives, from big things like managing chronic diseases to little things like taking care of small injuries or infections that are no big deal for most of us but can be serious for someone living outdoors with few resources, and everything in between. For clients that can't come to the clinic, there's an outreach group that walks the streets to hand out supplies and food and perform basic medical care.

There's also an organization in my city that collects leftover food from restaurants and other institutions and takes it directly to people who need it. Several of my friends volunteer as food runners with them and they find it very rewarding. Organizations like that are in great need of both money and manpower.

If I had the kind of money you're talking about, places like those are exactly where I'd put it.
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:25 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

My grandma volunteered a lot during my childhood. She and her quilting group made quilts for every graduating high school senior in her small town. She also made blankets for the local reservation, donated food and clothes, and held fundraisers and raffles to help the poor.

It totally made her year one year when a generous individual told her ladies' quilting circle to go out for lunch on his dime. He had seen how hard all of these elderly people worked at helping the less fortunate when many of them weren't much better off. And it was only lunch! But the feeling that her efforts were appreciated and noticed just melted her heart and motivated her to give even more. So, treating a group of hard-working volunteers might be an unconventional idea that would work, too.
posted by Ostara at 12:28 PM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Well I know you said you're done with charities, and, disclaimer, I work at one, but I think one issue you're having is super common, and it's that you're not donating to an organization that allows you to directly see how/where your money is going.

The non-profit where I work runs affordable housing and shelter programs for teens and young adults. We accept donations of all kinds: unrestricted dollars are fantastic, because they allow us to use the money where it is most needed, but many donors like to designate funds and that's wonderful too! For you, I would suggest finding a cause that speaks to you and working directly with a local agency that does good work in the community and offer them a donor-directed gift. Here are a few real-world examples from my own experience:

• We have a donor who loves music, and bought 50+ ukeleles for the young people who live in our affordable housing program (AHP). Even better: he hosts a ukelele night where and he and a music teacher (who he brings with) host lessons for a few hours each month.

• Another donor buys $25 gift cards for Target/Safeway each Christmas for each of the youth at our AHP. We combine those gift cards with other gifts donors bring in: cookie tins, goodie bags with toiletries and home goods, and make sure that every youth gets an amazing set of christmas presents.

• A group of donors host a yearly crab feed for our youth - crab can be expensive and most young people we work with could never afford it on their own, so it's a special night for everyone.

• A donor gives us ~$3k/year for scholarships, which is great because we work with college age kids who are looking for connections to education, and we are able to identify youth who are in great need of financial support.

• Another donor takes a staff member from our teen shelter shopping at Costco once a month and buys all of the food/supplies we need to serve meals.

All of these folks came to us with the idea for their charitable gifts, and our job was to operationalize it. We offer staff support for the music nights, our kitchen for the crab feed, etc.

Some of the examples I used take a lot of time for the donor, some are fairly minimal investments of time, but all of them make a huge difference to the youth we work with, and our donors know it.
posted by nerdcore at 12:42 PM on March 19, 2015 [7 favorites]

My parents have been in bankruptcy for a few years, and my dad has died in the interim, so my mother has been quite fortunate to get substantial (four-figure), anonymous gifts from at least two different people (three times, two of them were almost at the same time). This was done through a local bank. She got a letter saying there was a cashier's check that she could pick up in the amount of $X, basically. It made a difference each time, I can tell you that.
posted by dhartung at 12:59 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Or volunteer at a soup kitchen , homeless shelter to meet people?
I love this idea!!
posted by TRUELOTUS at 1:14 PM on March 19, 2015

I will second nerdcore:

Years ago, I did volunteer work at a homeless shelter. I had more personal contact with the residents than the staff were able to have -- they were too busy and there were rules against certain things. I was able to do things like babysit for a homeless mom so she could to her doctor's appointment (after a minister's wife, who had said to her "call me anytime," was aghast that she would actually call and ask for any help -- something that really did psychological damage to this woman at the time).

I also basically was able to buy almost anything I wanted to enhance the program in ways that mattered to me personally. If was going to do the legwork and spend my own money, they only rejected it if there was some serious reason it would be a problem for them. So I did things like hang inspirational artwork with a positive saying in the living area (that I put together on the cheap) and added towel racks to all the rooms to solve a chronic source of stress for everyone. I also brought in and donated all the little hotel soaps and shampoos that we had stashed in a bathroom drawer. That stuff is very valuable to homeless people.

When I was going to a women's program in downtown San Diego, most days, breakfast was (generic) coffee plus leftover pastries donated by one or two local Star Bucks. For a time, on weekends, a local woman provided milk, cereal, and fresh fruit. She was often there on site. (She eventually got ticked at one of the residents or something and decided to take her toys and go home. But it was nice while it lasted.)

Coffee was often served black. If they had sugar packets and the like, you were allowed to have them (if you got there early enough, before it ran out) but little touches like that tend to be in short supply at homeless service centers. If you want to find out what they need regularly and show up once a week or more to make sure those little "extras" are there, niceties to make your coffee taste how you like it or the like are highly valuable when you are on the street and struggling to get enough to eat and most people you interact with act like you should be grateful to have anything and not care that it isn't the way you prefer it.

Having a place to go where you can somewhat consistently get the shampoo, shower, hot coffee and so on that you need is a little oasis of civilization that can really do a lot to help keep homeless people functioning socially/psychologically so they don't become incapable of interacting effectively with polite society. It also just makes a hard scrabble life more bearable for that day.

I also did a lot of volunteer work when I was a fulltime wife and mom. If you go do volunteer work, as long as you don't step on toes or do something that is against some rule of some sort, you can kind of do whatever the heck you want. If you are doing the work and paying for the supplies, it basically is your baby and you have a lot of latitude to write your own ticket while not having to answer to anyone.

Other things I ended up doing at the homeless shelter where I volunteered: I did small repairs that took not much time or money, like buying and installing new closet supports for a closet rod that wasn't staying up anymore. I got with the director and found out what forms they needed to have filled out and took home copies of them to upgrade them and computerize a lot of it. I set them up with a PayPal account. I upgraded their website (later taken over by a professional IT person, who upgraded it further). I sat and helped the second most powerful person there do some of the paperwork, and then bought and brought in little things to make her life easier, like things to hold the papers she had to look at so she could type with both hands instead of holding papers with one. I made suggestions for fitting more stuff into the tiny office they had, some of which eventually got implemented.

The organization was dramatically transformed in the time I volunteered there. It was clear to me that I made a big impact. It wasn't all me, but I had maneuvering room that no one else there had because my time and money wasn't subject to the rules and laws they had to comply with. So I could just say to the director "I see (little problem). Is it okay with you if I do (little fix for it)?" and she was thrilled. It was rare that I got told "no."
posted by Michele in California at 1:22 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

So about Modest Needs specifically -- I looked into them recently, because I love the idea, but after reading about them I'd actually discourage people from donating to them because unfortunately they seem to be more flawed than the charities they're trying to replace. They sued the non-profit charity information service Charity Navigator because they were unhappy about the information in CN's profile on them. Their president's 150k salary constitutes more than 10% of their annual expenses. And their Glassdoor reviews seem to indicate that the work environment there is fairly toxic.
posted by phoenixy at 1:34 PM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

The next time that you pay your water bill, ask the nice lady taking the money if you can pay 5 other people's water bills.

Contact your dentist and tell him or her that you are giving a set amount to pay for patients that would otherwise not be able to get done what they need to get done.

Same with your eye doctor.

Medicaid doesn't pay for adults to see the dentist or eye doctor, by the way. It's considered a luxury that many single moms' skip for themselves. As a single mom living below the poverty line, a free trip to the dentist or eye doctor would be amazing. Always pay the doctor directly. If you give a poor mother money to go to the dentist or eye doctor, she will just spend it on her kid.

Medicaid also doesn't cover children getting braces or contacts.

I've often fantasized about going to the mall and some random stranger hands me a mall gift card and tells me that I have to use it on myself, and it has to all be used on that day. I know that may sound silly but my kids always have to come first, I would feel really bad if I bought clothes for myself that weren't on the clearance rack and desperately needed. It would be amazing to have someone give me permission and the resources to take care of myself a little bit. It wouldn't be hard for you to do. Just carry around a bunch of gift cards and look for the tired women with almost no make-up and ugly shoes. You could say that you bought the card for your daughter who decided to go out drinking instead of meeting you for dinner so you are going to teach her a lesson by giving away her treat and you want it to go to someone who looks like they would appreciate it more than she would.
posted by myselfasme at 2:24 PM on March 19, 2015 [6 favorites]

Seconding myselfasme--gift cards handed to people you cross paths with, even if the cards are for relatively small amounts, can be a huge deal to the other person. Like, tears-of-gratitude huge deal.

I'd also bet that your local women's shelter or LGBT teen shelter has people who could desperately do with some help. For security and privacy reasons, they might not be willing to put you in direct contact with people, but you could probably get wishlists, or have the shelter pass along a gift, or whatever.
posted by MeghanC at 5:43 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have increasingly been giving money to individuals, via gofundme and indiegogo and similar platforms, rather than to organizations (although the bulk of my charitable giving still goes to them.) I like the immediacy of it and knowing that the money's going to good use. I've primarily given to people I actually know, or second level friends-of-friends, but it's included legal fees, dental surgery, a computer for a formerly-homeless college student, and funeral expenses.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:55 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine once went to a Marshall's layaway around the holidays and paid off some random people's layaways, which was awesome. Turns out, LOTS of stores have layaways, they just don't advertise. If you're in a big city, your local Wal-Mart, Costco, or other grocery store will have a layaway or credit department. Chat up the person behind the counter, say you have $50 burning a hole in your pocket, ask if they can think of anyone who has groceries or necessities they're trying to pay off that would benefit from that $50 towards their bill. Tipping above and beyond when eating at diners is also a sort of pleasant surprise, especially if you can see your server is frazzled, most people waiting tables at Denny's are just barely making ends meet if at all, so a $100 tip on a plate of pancakes could be more than they make in tips the rest of the week combined.

Not all organizations are equipped to know what to do with 50 bikes. They don't have the staff to research whether they are allowed to accept them, to figure out what kids to distribute them to, to actually distribute them. Same with giving money but restricting it to something the organization isn't already set up to do. Many organizations CAN use your $10,000 for direct service, but they can't tell you how and can't give you details because of privacy laws. I wish I could send a picture of the classroom of children gathered around the learning toys we bought with your donation, a recording of them reading from the books we bought with your donation, and the phone number of their moms who are grateful to have childcare so they can go to work and put food on the table. I can't.

If you're in the Chicago area, I'd be happy to tell you about many organizations who could use your money for direct service, which ones are equipped to distribute gifts-in-kind and which ones don't have the infrastructure, and what questions to ask an organization to ascertain what's a good fit, philanthropically, for you. I've been working in this field for a long time and am happy to share insight.
posted by juniperesque at 8:03 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about setting up 5 college funds that you pay into every year. And over the next few years find 5 kids whose lives could transform with a better education. For instance, check out the NY Times for the articles about the city's neediest cases. Find a heartwarming story about a poverty-stricken kid who dreams of becoming a doctor and offer to pay for their education. You can probably even set a google alert for stories like these. Or become a volunteer in a homeless shelter and get to know the families living there. Catch a kid before s/he falls through the cracks.

@phoenixy that is a high salary for Modest Needs, over 10% to the ED? At a nonprofit I used to volunteer for the ED's salary was close to 200k, but this was a $50 million a year org.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 8:18 PM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I second decathecting's suggestion of DonorsChoose (disclaimer: I work for them) and similarly-personal charities like Watsi.

That still won't get you actual face-to-face interaction, though. For that I agree volunteering is a great option. I've enjoyed tutoring adults studying for the GED, but there are lots of possibilities.
posted by Fishkins at 8:55 PM on March 19, 2015

I was struck by how that type of giving made me feel so much better and fulfilled as a human being than, say, the $5k that I give to the Red Cross every year.

Consider of the donating is more about you, or more about other people. Building a house yourself is no doubt very satisfying but there are good reasons people pay specialists to do it, even when they have the time.

Don't give up on charities, it's a bit like dating in that it can take a while to find a good fit. Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 11:28 PM on March 19, 2015

"Modest Needs and GiveDirectly both focus on the direct cash method (disclaimer: I have volunteered for the latter). But I'm actually going to suggest that you spend some time volunteering, because it seems that a personal connection is inportant to you. I'd start with calling a local church if you're not opposed to that; most have a fund focused on helping members in need."

No, honestly, don't volunteer if you can give cash. I know it's a fucked up thing to say, but volunteers are generally a drain on non-profit resources, not a source of them, and they can almost always do more with the cash equivalent. I had to turn down volunteers all the time because I didn't have the time to train and supervise them, and people get grouchy if what you really want them to volunteer to do is forty hours of data entry so that you can do something that takes more skill.

As far as stuff with an actual, direct impact: There are a ton of organizations that give out medical supplies to the homeless because 1) a lot of homeless people are homeless because of ongoing medical conditions, and 2) it's often the best way to bring people into the constellation of service agencies. (This does include things like giving out needles and crack pipes, honestly.)

For a less direct, but likely more effective impact, fund malarial supplies. GiveWell can be smarmy fucks, but it's still pretty likely that about $3,400 per life saved is the best you can do dollar per dollar.
posted by klangklangston at 12:33 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Does your town have a Volunteer Center? They will have a list of all sorts of groups; look through the list and see if one of them rings a bell for you. Then, seconding Klangklangston, talk to one of them, and then give them money.

Homeless shelters can be a godsend; ask them what they need (they'll have a list, believe me) and buy it for them.

The demand on our Food Bank is growing every year, with more and more working poor needing help. Volunteering your time and energy is great; giving them money is even better, because they can buy in bulk.

In the Pacific Northwest local police are using their own money to buy beds for kids because they saw so many kids sleeping on the floor when they were answering calls or serving warrants. The cops here also buy teddy bears to keep in their patrol cars to give to kids when there's a stressful situation (and when is it not stressful if the cops are there?). I'm sure they'd be happy to have someone else's money helping out.

I've given a lot of money to crowdsourcing appeals, but I consider it a hobby for me. Giving money to someone who needs it, especially if you can look directly at them and say "I hope this helps," is a whole new level. I very much admire your attitude, and this question.
posted by kestralwing at 1:49 AM on March 20, 2015

I love this thread and all the ideas in it for things to do/ways to help.

Throwing in one I've tried and tested: take a homeless person on the street out to dinner. They might say no (a few I've asked have) but sometimes they won't, and then you can share a meal and a conversation.

I've done this a couple of times, I was pretty nervous about asking but the conversations I've had have been ace and I was really glad I did it. It pushed me out of my comfort zone a little which I was glad of but wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea.
posted by greenish at 5:09 AM on March 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

My Aunt pays for half the breakfasts (milk and weetbix) at the local lowest income school. Schools would be more likely to jump on something like this, if there is a need for it.

My Aunt also went round local businesses, asking for them to match her contribution, so that is who pays for the other half. She was thinking about retirement, but decided she would prefer to keep working, and be able to support things like this.

My other Aunt (RIP) and Uncle are strongly religious, but decided neither of the churches they were from really needed the money, so tithed directly to the community. She worked in a low income school, and they had contacts at the food bank and women's refuge, so could help there if needed.
I always felt grateful (and guilty that it didn't go towards something'more important') for the time I was starting as a student, and my uncle asked if I wanted a lift to the supermarket, and proceeded to essentially buy me a pantry of basics, including a 5kg sack of rice.
(A++, would have a sack of rice again. Super reassuring when food budget suddenly drops to 0).
As far as I can tell, once they started looking for opportunities, they did not fail to find them.

P.s. with the bikes, organisations like women's refuge (organisations that run domestic violence shelters) might be more willing to hand them out, or even keep a couple at their safe houses.
posted by Elysum at 9:48 PM on March 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

We had people buy bikes specifically, which ended up taking us quite a bit of staff time to select people for the bikes, make sure they got helmets and help with maintenance if needed, and then distribute them (and try to make sure they didn't sell the bikes, but used them as intended to get kids to school) - it was helpful, but even more helpful would have been the cash to spend on what we needed at the time, which was less bikes, and more payroll for the social workers.

You can't help without knowing what help is needed (and wanted, another dimension that matters a lot). That takes either your time and effort, or someone else's time and effort, usually paid for as a professional or at least supported for volunteers.

Also people who ask for help are visible. It takes real effort to find people who are too trapped, overwhelmed or worn out to be able to ask for help. We started a pregnancy support program recently and realised way more women in our community were having stillbirths and early infant deaths than we had realised simply because the women affected gave birth at home and coped (or not) privately - it wasn't seen as an issue to ask for help for. You can wait for people to approach and ask for help, but they may not be the people who need the help the most.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:47 AM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

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