Commentary

In seeking to better steward their resources, Christians may sometimes wonder how their giving to the poor and marginalized might better reflect God’s ultimate gift and sacrifice. The truth is that giving well and wisely isn’t easy – as givers from Andrew Carnegie to Warren Buffett have observed – and it requires wisdom and its own set of skills.

Maybe you’re faithfully tithing to your church and also supporting other important ministries or nonprofits. Or maybe you’ve struggled to identify the right organizations beyond your church to which to give. Or maybe you’re just getting started with giving, period.

Regardless, the questions are the same: Now what do I do? Which organizations do I support?

Most givers we know want to make a difference, and to support organizations that are effective. But how to judge?

First, get smart about which measures matter and which don’t. It’s tempting to focus on simple metrics, such as “overhead rates.” Don’t do it. Charity ratings web sites tend to rely on these kinds of measures to steer donors toward certain nonprofits and away from others. But, truth be told, these metrics aren’t especially helpful and can often be deceiving – for example by penalizing organizations for investing in professional development for their staff or technology upgrades that actually allow them to be more effective.

What really matters in supporting nonprofits is what they achieve relative to their specific goals – and in light of their total budget. There isn’t one simple or easy metric by which you can compare a nonprofit working to address homelessness to one seeking to protect the environment, for example. There is no easy analog to profit or ROI. Assessing nonprofit performance is tougher than measuring the performance of companies.

But every nonprofit and church should be able to clearly answer three basic questions:

· What are we trying to achieve (aims)?

· How are we seeking to achieve it (strategies or programs)?

· What information do we have to assess progress (results)?

Candid.org (formerly Guidestar) now offers nonprofits the opportunity to put the answers to these questions on its site – and tens of thousands do. It also provides seals of “transparency” for the degree to which they share this information. Support the organizations that have clear and compelling answers to these questions.

Second, seek experts’ help. If you’re passionate about a specific cause, seek out experts and on-the-ground community members who can recommend the best organizations to which to give. It’s important to recognize that whatever skills that allowed someone to accumulate wealth aren’t necessarily the ones that will set them up to be a great giver. Seek out nonprofit and issue experts and truly listen, instead of jumping in right away with your ideas and fixes. Be humble, and open yourself up to learning from those who are from the communities you care about and the nonprofit world.

Third, get proximate. Get to know the people you seek to help through your giving, as well as the organizations you’re supporting. “We have too many people trying to problem-solve from a distance,” said Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Serving and volunteering can be a powerful experience and “it’s like doing field research,” said Greg Baldwin, the CEO of the website VolunteerMatch. “It makes you more effective. It anchors the importance of giving and gives it meaning, emotional connection, and grounding.” It also gives you a front-row seat of how an organization is led, what kind of staff it employs, and the results it achieves. If you have the time, it’s worth the effort.

Fourth and finally, once you’ve found organizations you think are effective, support them in the ways that are most helpful to them. That means not restricting your gift to just a specific program – and making it last. Multi-year, unrestricted support is what nonprofits most need to do their important work. This typically means choosing fewer organizations and supporting them in a bigger way rather than scattering less across more organizations.

You might ask: But how do you know they’ll spend the money wisely? It’s vital to learn enough to be comfortable with the nonprofit’s track record and judgment. “If you’re worried [they] might misspend funds, and if you can’t trust them, don’t make the [gift] in the first place,” said Paul Shoemaker, a former Microsoft executive and founding president of Social Venture Partners – a network of giving circles across the globe.

Giving effectively isn’t easy. But Christians are called to give sacrificially and with wise stewardship. You can do it, and the payoff is real impact on communities, issues, and people.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and author of Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count , to be published April 16 by PublicAffairs / Hachette. 

Grace Chiang Nicolette is Vice President of Programming and External Relations at CEP. She and her family are members of Highrock Covenant Church in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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