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Feeding Hungry People and Other Charitable Acts

Give the gift of food

This is epic-length, well for this medium at least, but forgive me. I felt it was an important topic and I trust that if you hang out around here you have a long enough attention span to handle it. Besides, I got to make up terms and use bullet lists and my deeply geeky writer side is just dancing with joy. Thank you for your indulgence. ~beth

The holiday season is creeping up and for a lot of us that means we are going to be feeding people. Not just our family and friends at various gatherings – the "orphan" Thanksgiving is one of my favorites – but also by choosing some food-related charities when it comes to charitable donations and gift-giving.

One way to find deserving charities is asking friends who they support, so I did just that. I got some great recommendations, starting with, of course, food banks.

Food banks are the most fundamental and most direct way to feed hungry people. I am a huge fan of local food banks, having been involved as staff, volunteer and client. To find a food bank close to you, go to Feeding America's food bank locator. You can also make a donation while you're there. Alternatively, Share our Strength is dedicated to ending childhood hunger.

I live in the northwest so it's not surprising that a couple of local food banks got a shout-out:

  • The Auburn Food Bank, which has a big annual breakfast fundraiser coming up November 4 from 7-8:30 AM, call 253-804-5696 or drop them e-mail for more info. If you are in the area, I hear it's a great event for a good cause. 
  • The University District food bank in Seattle got a couple of votes, too. Check out this video that explains a bit more about them.
Beyond Food Banks

Mama's Kitchen is founded on the belief that "every person is entitled to the basic necessity of life — nutritious food." They prepare and deliver food to men, women and children who are affected by AIDS or cancer.

Alex's Lemonade Stand is "fighting cancer one cup at a time" and while it's not exact;y about feeding people, I think the idea of a worldwide lemonade stand against cancer rocks so it's here. Deal with it.

Will Work for Food uses an interesting model where people do community service work, while friends and family "sponsor" this work with a cash donation. 100% of the donations are given to Doctors Without Borders to purchase and distribute life-saving nutritional supplements to severely malnourished children. This project is the brainchild of students at the University of Michigan and I really like both the donation model and the decision to turn their funds over to an organization whose size allows them to more effectively deliver the aid. Great synergy!

The Full Belly Project designs, creates and distributes innovative agricultural products that allow people in rural areas of the world to produce both food and income.

Fare Start is a restaurant / hospitality industry training program in Seattle that trains and employs homeless and disadvantaged people. It also happens to be the 2011 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award Winner lending it an extra bit of street cred.

University of California at Santa Cruz's Grow a Farmer program does just that: trains organic farmers via apprenticeships and other programs.

Center for Science in the Public Interest whose mission is "… conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being."  Make a donation or give someone (or yourself) a gift subscription to Nutrition Action Healthletter.

The Environmental Working Group uses "…the power of public information to protect public health and the environment" resulting in a range of topics, some of which are sure to be of concern to pretty much everyone. If you are considering the EWG, check out this Holiday Gift Bag with a cookbook, a variety of environmentally friendly food bags, chocolate and other goodies.  

Slow Food USA is part of the worldwide movement that "links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment" over long, lovely wine-filled meals. Check out their programs here. Note to Slow Food geeks: Your donation page is not easy to find. You might want to fix that.

These suggestions came from Tana Butler, Andrew Wilder. Lisa Dawson, Jeanne Sauvage, Jason Phelps, G Francie, Kimmie Schiffel, and Alan Richardson and Karen Tack. Thanks for the recommendations, everyone.

Having spent the last while researching these groups, I only wish I had extra cash to write big checks to all of them. Alas, real life isn't like that and I have to pick where I put my charity dollars with care. You probably do as well.

If none of these groups strike your fancy, the rest of this article is for you, too. In it, we're going to dig a bit into how to figure out whether or not a group is worth your time and, more importantly, your money.

Is that "Not-for-profit" REAL?

Not-for-profits in the United States can serve a number of purposes but they must be organized and operated for purposes that are beneficial to the public interest, meaning that you can't get 501c3 status for "MeAndMyFriendsWantStuff.org" no matter how good your arguments are. Which really bites, because I was all set to register Beth Needs A Lytro Camera so I could get one of those babies. but I digress...

My question is this: Is the charity REAL?

No, not real as in "does it exist"—it has a website or flyer so it must exist, right? It may even call itself a "not-for-profit" or have an "Inc." after its name—and it may or may not have the legal standing to say so.

But how do you know if it's really REAL?

REAL as in my hopefully catchy mnemonic device to help you remember the four critical areas to look at before you type in your paypal password:

  • Registered—Is the organization registered with all of the appropriate state and federal agencies? Are they making reports as required by the IRS?
  • Ethical—Does the organization comply with common ethical guidelines? Are its officers reputable? Are there news stories or other indications of problems with the group?
  • Accountable—Are funds disbursed in ways that guarantee they will be used as intended? Are records kept and available for your review?
  • Logical—Does the donation make sense for you right now? Is this group the best way to accomplish your desired goals?

Each of these has deeper questions behind it, so let's drill down a little...

Registered

Let's be honest, while we like the warm feeling we get from donating to what we believe is a good cause, the tax deduction makes it much easier to actually write that check.

Some groups call themselves non-profit without actually being one. Before handing over your money, verify that the group is actually a 501c3 with a simple search of not-for-profit corporations that have filed with the IRS.

Many states also require NFPs to register. Find the agency regulating charitable organizations in your state here.

If the group is not a registered not-for-profit, you will not be able to deduct any donations you give them. It is also a red flag since most reputable charities incorporate as a 501c3 quickly in order to provide tax benefits and accountability to their donors.

Tax Deductible v. Tax Exempt

There are two types of tax breaks for US not-for-profit corporations, only one of which is useful to the donor: 

  • Tax-exempt means the charity pays no taxes on your donation. You do not gain any tax benefit from this type of donation.
  • Tax-deductible means you can take a deduction for the donation on your taxes. This is what you should be looking for.

Money you give to any group that is not actually a not-for-profit with tax-deductible status is just a gift and both you and the recipient will pay taxes on it.

Ethical

Many questions related to the ethics of specific charities are highly personal and difficult to address in a checklist fashion. Some organizations, for example, demand that hungry people sit through a religious service before being fed, something I find inappropriate. You may think that's fine, however, particularly if it's your religion being promoted, and choose to support it with your donations.

Other questions are more straightforward.

Are board members benefiting from donations, either directly or by drawing an exorbitant salary?

Do appeals for your money honestly represent the need and the eventual use of your donation?

Is the group attempting to mislead you in other. more subtle, ways?

I hadn't really thought about this last one much until I started doing some research but it seems that there is a surprisingly common, and devious, way to get lots of visibility.

"Some questionable charities use an impressive name which closely resembles the name of a respected, legitimate organization." Charity Watch

Take Doctors Without Borders, for example—and believe me, I looked for another example—medical personnel who provide health care in places that most sane people won't go. They are Doctors (and similar folk) who operate without noting lines on the map: Doctors Without Borders Fitting name for a great group. I have supported them in the past, even contributed a recipe to a cookbook to benefit them

Others have noted the cachet of their name and now we have the borderless…oh my, the borderless. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, DWB must be feeling mighty puffed up indeed.

I heard recently that our county seat (in Washington state) has had some work done by Architects Without Borders and I thought…really? Architects? Do they go into war zones and haul flying buttresses out from behind the front lines?

There’s Chemists Without Borders, which I completely misunderstood the meaning of, probably because I watch Breaking Bad. And Clowns Without Borders which was queued up for a mighty helping of snark until I read that they have people being evacuated from Kenya because it's too dangerous for the clowns.

These groups, and a whole lot of other, "%whatevers% Without Borders" are all perfectly legitimate organizations working to help people around the world. Their names, however, might give one pause.

Then there's Pirates Without Borders. Much as I hate to burst my own imaginary bubble of their good works with my pointy sword, and while acknowledging that they do have some worthy goals, I must warn you that Pirates Without Borders does not appear to be a not-for-profit. Please do not give them your money thinking they are going to cure scurvy, work on Pegleg Anti-Defamation or try to have parrots declared service animals. They are not. They are working on political change, which isn't usually a tax-deductible activity.

Accountable

Is the money donated actually used for the stated purpose? Even many large and well respected charities have appealed for funds ostensibly for a specific event only to later put the donations in a general fund.

Are they delivering the services they say they are? The ability to take in cash and write checks is not enough. After all, there are very few charities that just hand people a check, most either deliver services themselves or provide grants to other groups that do. In either case, you should be able to find out what happens to your gift in reasonably specific terms.

Are financial statements available? Most not-for-profits have financials on their web sites. If not, you should feel free to request one and decline to deal with groups that can't show you what they are doing with your hard-earned money.

Are they new? Watch out for brand new charities that appear in the aftermath of a specific event. They are often sketchy groups that appeal to the heightened emotions around a tragedy. Carefully consider if a new group has the infrastructure to effectively collect and distribute donations with any degree of oversight.

Do they only exist online? Charity Watch goes so far as to suggest that you "Insist upon seeing a physical address to discourage scammers, who may set up a flashy web site, raise a lot of money and disappear into the anonymity of cyberspace." 

Logical

The last thing to do is a sort of gut check. Ask yourself, "Is ths logical? Does the donation really make sense for me right now?"

Can you afford it? If you are struggling to get by, consider donating your time instead of money. Or clean out your closet and donate clothes; many food banks can use clothing donations or direct you to someone who can.

Is this a cause you truly support? Watching others struggle brings out the generosity in most of us and we really want to help. Unfortunately, we can't help everyone who genuinely needs it—let alone those who don't—so focus on things you care about rather than giving in to the often hysteria fueled drive to give, give, give in the face of this week's dire and urgent need.

Is this the best way to accomplish this goal? Maybe what you really want to give isn't money. I give money and food to my local food bank regularly and I like knowing that I am helping out my community. That is nothing compared to the feeling I got the year I organized a group of friends and showed up at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle on Christmas morning with a truckload of donated food and made breakfast for all the kids and their families. That was an amazing day.

Resources

Here are some of the resources I used while writing this treatise. You may also find them helpful in your own decision making process.

How about you? What sorts of charitable giving are you doing this year? Please share your favorite groups with us in comments.

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