It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by all the awful things happening in the world. Climate change, war, poverty, natural disasters… Sometimes life feels like a constant barrage of really bad news.

In the face of so much suffering, many of us feel compelled to help. But how? Donating money is a fairly straightforward way to take action, except it’s not always easy to know which organizations and groups need it most.

Where do your donation dollars do the most good? Here are some tips to ensure your money goes as far as it possibly can to aid those in need.


Pick a cause you care about

With so many charities out there, how do you decide where to donate? A good first step that will help you narrow your search is to pick a cause you really care about. Passionate about animals? Check out some of the animal shelters and rescues in your area, or support a well known organization like the Humane Society. Want to help refugees? Consider donating to Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, or another charity that helps displaced people. Worried about global warming? A number of different environmental groups are working to protect the planet with the support of donors.

Not only does choosing a cause you’re passionate about help you decide where to donate, it also offers you an opportunity to make a difference— to take concrete action instead of feeling helpless.


When in doubt, go local…or abroad

Even after weighing your interests and passions, you may find yourself pulled in too many directions to make a decision about where to donate. Why not look around at your own neighborhood and see where your money could do the most good?

Wherever your interest lies, there’s surely an organization, group, or charity in your area that aligns with your beliefs. And when you donate locally, your money stays in the community, supporting people and/or organizations right in your own backyard.

One of the biggest perks of donating money locally is that you don’t need to give much to make a big difference. I knew a woman who, when she saw that some of the students on the playground at her son’s elementary school weren’t dressed warmly enough for the cold winter weather, went to a local thrift store and loaded up her cart with kid-sized winter coats and dropped them off at the school’s office for anyone who needed them. She didn’t spend a lot of money, but her donation made an immediate and significant difference in children’s lives.

If you’re hoping to make a difference but you’re not a wealthy philanthropist, donating to a local charity provides you with the opportunity to invest not just in a specific cause but also in your community.

On the other hand, your donation dollars will go a lot farther if you take advantage of international exchange rates and lower costs of living in developing nations. While poverty, disease, and malnutrition are widespread problems, there are certain areas of the world where these issues are much more pervasive. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, more than 75% of the population lives on less than $1.90 per day. If you’re used to regularly spending $5 or more on your daily latte, it’s hard to imagine what that kind of poverty would even look like. One thing is for sure, however: even small levels of giving to the most in-need communities around the world will have a drastic impact on their daily lives.


Do some research

There are a lot of reputable and trustworthy fundraising organizations out there, but “charity scams” have become a serious problem. To ensure your donation is going to a legitimate cause, follow these suggestions from the Federal Trade Commission:

  • When considering a specific charity, search its name plus the words “review” or “scam”
  • If you’re asked to donate in cash, gift cards, or by wiring money, don’t comply
  • Review your statements to make sure you’re not overcharged
  • Watch for red flags like vague claims or an attempt to rush you into donating

If you think you’ve found a worthy charity but you’d like to do some additional vetting, watchdog organizations like Give Well, Charity Navigator and CharityWatch can be extremely informative.

I like Give Well in particular because it rigorously analyzes non-profits and causes for the highest impact. This is especially important due to the fact that recent studies have shown up to 75% of charities have little to no impact on the desired cause they intend to support. Give Well does the research so you know your dollar is spent productively, and even assesses which organizations have the largest funding gaps so you know that the money will be put to use efficiently and effectively. They’ve calculated that the cost of saving a life (with a relatively high level of confidence) is about $2,500, if given to the right places.


Make an investment

One option for people looking to support multiple causes at the same time is to work with a company like Bright Funds to set up a donation that acts as a sort of investment fund. You get to choose a particular group of charities (all of which have been vetted), and the design of your portfolio is fully customizable.

Bright Funds specializes in workplace giving, so consider contacting them if you think your company may be interested in this type of social responsibility.


Choose to help

You can’t stop bad things from happening in the world, but you can choose to help. By following these tips, you can ensure that your donation dollars are going where they will do the most good. Science shows us that donating to helpful causes not only benefits others, but also increases your own sense of well being, especially if you can see the effect your donation has on the communities who receive it.

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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.