We all know that the holidays aren’t about presents, but it can be really difficult to opt out of the commercial extravaganza that defines the season. A great way to still participate in the “giving” aspect of these next few weeks without getting caught up in the excess is to give to a charity in lieu of giving gifts. But giving can get really complicated when you start to consider the economics of all of it. Is your dollar going as far as it can? Is the money going to those who need help or is it tied up in advertising costs? How can you really know whether organizations are doing what they say that are doing? All of the information about how to most effectively give is scattered and opaque. We are all educated and bright people who want to make the most educated and effective decisions so that we can have the greatest impact with our actions, but we are paralyzed by choice.

Here I try to bring together some general facts and information to help you make the best decision. I have also compiled a list of some great organizations recommended and/or run by our SERENE Social community.

Some Big Questions:

1. Is it better to give local or send my money abroad to where it is “worth more?”

This is a hard question to answer because, yes, in many places abroad your dollar can go further. Relatively robust welfare systems in the USA and other first world countries provide a base level of care to residents that third world country inhabitants can only dream of, so it might seem like sending money abroad to those in acute need is always the right answer. However, many systemic changes begin at home and in first world countries. For instance, a dollar given to find a cure for HIV or Cancer or to develop a new type of malaria prevention may have a smaller immediate impact but an enormous eventual outcome. It might be better to ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your gift in the first place as it can be like comparing apples and oranges to think about supporting long term systemic changes vs the immediate needs of those suffering.

2. How do I know whether the charity is doing what they say they will?

If you are looking at a reputable organization registered as a local or international NGO and they are saying “$100 dollars will buy a goat for a family” or “$1 will feed a child for a week” or something similar you can generally rest assured that they are being honest about that statement. Make sure that they are a registered entity (as a 501(c)3 or equivalent) and read the fine print.

There are a number of websites that provide a basic due diligence about charity organizations. The good news is that these watchdogs are globally focused and use the same criteria to judge organizations abroad and at home. They rate charities on Financial Wellbeing and Transparency and Accountability. Here are a few good ones:

Charity Navigator
BBB Wise Giving Alliance
Charity Watch

3. How do I pick a charity or organization? There are so many to choose from.

The best way to pick an organization to support is to find a cause that truly resonates with you. If you believe in the cause that you are supporting, you are much more likely to stick with donating or volunteering and will be an advocate in more ways than just sending money.

I like to follow the same guidelines as the Effective Altruism movement to figure out where my money will be most useful. Effective Altruism is essentially a utilitarian way of deciding how to give.…How can one effect the most change for the most people by doing the least harm?

Effective Altruists value:

Effective Altruists look for these qualities in a cause:

Check out their website for more information
(icons taken from EffectiveAltruism.Org).

4. What if I want to give more than just money?

It can seem surprisingly difficult to find a volunteer job, especially if you can only devote a few hours a week or month to a cause. But there are so many simple things that we can all do to help our neighbors and local communities, all you have to do is ask what needs to be done most of the time! My mom and I volunteer at a local soup kitchen whenever I am at home. All you do is walk in the door, tell them you are there to volunteer and they hand you a rag, mop, pan of food and ladle, hairnet or whatever else you need to do the job they need done, and away you go. Showing up is the most important step.

If you have a professional job that provides a basic service that could help those in need, consider donating a few hours a week to a pro bono project. Even better, approach your boss or colleagues about taking on a pro bono project as a group. Pro bono work is a great opportunity for you to stretch your creative muscles, focus on team building, and feel good about what you do with yourself the other 95% of your time.

If you are still deciding what to do with your life, or are considering a career change to find more meaning, I recommend checking out the organization 80,000 Hours. They help people understand how they can best use the 80,000 hours that we work in a lifetime to achieve the most and affect the most change in the world. https://80000hours.org/

5. Great organizations to support organized by issue:

Every organization on this list has 3 or 4 starts (out of 4) on Charity Navigator, and has been vetted by our team. Many of the organizations are operated by members of the SERENE community or were started by our friends (shown with asterisks)! We love being part of such an incredible community of movers and shakers who want to change the world…and are succeeding in doing so!

Charity: Water

Heifer International
Action Against Hunger 
Aga Khan Foundation

Micro Loans/Direct Giving/Empowerment
One Acre Fund

Habitat for Humanity
Bridges to Prosperity*

Boys and Girls Clubs (local)
Clowns Without Borders
Outward Bound Peacebuilding
Save the Children

The Smithsonian
Audre Lorde Project
Academy of American Poets
Artspace Projects
Public Radio International
National Public Radio

American Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders
Planned Parenthood
Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

World Peace
Amnesty International

Human Rights
Planned Parenthood
White Helmets
Human Rights Watch

Scholarships America
Khan Academy

Animals Rights/ Welfare
Humane Society
Animal Legal Defense Fund
Farms Not Factories*

Wildlife Conservation Society
Conservation International
The Nature Conservancy
Wild Aid

Your Local Church

I challenge you to bring in the New Year by making a small contribution to at least one organization that you really believe in.  I challenge you to give in one way or another by January 1st - extra points if you set up recurring donations or sign up to volunteer. Tag us @serenesocial on Instagram with your donation for a shoutout! Please email me [email protected] with any comments or more suggestions to add to the list.

Love, Tegan Bukowski

London Lead, SERENE Social


About Tegan

Tegan is a vinyasa teacher, computer hacker, architect and insatiable traveler, London lead of SERENE and co-founder of the SereneBook. She works for Zaha Hadid Architects in London. Previously, she has worked with NASA Astronauts while they were on the International Space Station, started a non-profit called ArtistsActivists, filmed for Ridley Scott in the Kibera Slum in Kenya, and plays horse polo.

Serene Social Logo