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Make Your Small Act Count: Protecting Yourself in Digital Giving

Is it me or is HBO turning into the television network of change? With its amazingly brilliant documentary series, the cable-network formerly known only for soft porn and profanity is now delving into more socially conscious and aware material. Tonight, the daring network will air A Small Act, a beautiful, heart-warming story of how a Swedish Jewish woman’s gift of $15 a month spawned an educational brain trust for the Kenyan nation.

As a Compassion child sponsor and former Compassion employee I know that one small monthly gesture can mean the difference between life and death, ignorance and literacy, health and sickness, lawlessness and salvation. Christians have being doing the small individual donor thang to stop global poverty for decades. But recently the small act of giving has exploded exponentially thanks to the ease and relatively unregulated digital and online giving industry. (I’ll explain the distinction between digital and online giving in a later post :)) One study from Blackbud’s group looked at a group of 24 major nonprofits over three years and found a 315% increase in online giving from 2004 to 2008. With the text-to-give campaigns for Haiti, the onslaught of fundraising tools from Facebook and the multiple cause-oriented social networking websites that allow any Joe Blow to raise money online for a charity –,, online and digital giving have ballooned and as a donor it’s tough to know just whom to trust.
With the airing of A Small Act and the publicity this film will generate for giving – online or otherwise – I thought it prudent to write a short post about giving smartly and making the most of your small act. So here are 10 easy ways to make sure your small act of giving actually helps someone in need.

1. Give to organizations you know. It’s better to give online to an organization you have helped in the past or have had experienced with. Many organizations are “disaster opportunist,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but they may market more doing disasters trying to cash in on the publicity. Another idea is to give to organizations your friends and family knows. Ask them about it and have them explain to you why your money should go there. If they can, chances are this is an organization that has advocates and is legit.

2. Follow up online giving with a phone call/e-mail/tweet whatever. Wait for a response. Make sure the organization you’re giving to actually has some flesh and blood behind it.

3. It’s O.K. to give just once. If you get another ask for donation before you get a thank you – move on. It is common practice to thank a donor before asking for more money. Besides it’s just common courtesy.

4. Vet online giving options. It takes two seconds to look up a charity on GuideStar, Foundation or Charity Navigators. Remember though Charity Navigators only evaluates the 5,000 largest charities in the U.S. That leaves about 1 million out there that won’t have a rating from them. GuideStar is paid for mostly by grantees and foundations which are also nonprofits. In addition, how these organizations evaluate and rate charities has been called into question so you can’t totally rely on their word – though it’s the best one we have on a charity’s effectiveness right now. A change of pace in evaluations is Great Nonprofits, a site where donors write reviews

5. Become a smarter donor. The Charity Rater has a test for donors on aid organizations. Take it. It will be enlightening. I like the Charity Rater because they tend to do something that is rare in the nonprofit, giving realm – criticize. They have some interesting views on what makes good giving as evidenced by their blog Good Intentions are Not Enough. Check them out and know that nonprofit giving isn’t all rosy glasses and puppy smiles. Plus they’re kinda’ snarky and I like my ice cream with a little lemon.

6. Look for the hope. Many charities have made cottage industries out of what I call the “pornography of the poor.” This is the whole flies on the bellies approach to marketing that has the entire Western world believing all African children are emaciated babies with bloated bellies and bone-thin limbs. Yes, some are, but many more aren’t. I’ve been to Africa. I know. They look more like this:

An African child in Nigeria

Look for the human dignity in your online charity

A smart donor looks for the hope in the images and text from their online giving suitor because they know that when they give their money will actually accomplish something, instead of contributing to the black hole of poverty, sickness and death. Ask for the ROI – make sure you can see some success stories in all that need imagery. A nonprofit that does not respect the human dignity of a child or person in need is not a charity worthy of my precious resources.

7. Do you know what SSL means? Well, if you don’t see it on your online giving website then that’s a red flag. In IT speak it means Secure Sockets Layer or its newer version being Transport Layer Security (TLS). To you it means the monetary transaction on this website is encrypted and adds an extra layer of protection against identity fraud. VeriSign is probably the most recognizable SSL brand there is but there are others. It costs a boat load of money – as much as $3,000 for a license for two years – so those who have it are serious about security if you ask me. Here are some tips from VeriSign on staying secure online.

8. Give Globally but Locally. I’m a big proponent of give local globally. This means giving to organizations who have offices based in the countries where they’ve worked. Having traveled to more than 16 countries in six years I know that there can be some lost in translation. And chances are if your charity doesn’t have offices where you want to give there will be some lost transactions as well. Foreign donors are best when they help nationals do good work in their own countries. It’s just better that way, trust me.

9. Give what’s needed. This may sound elementary but witness the uproar when the guy tried to give 1 Million T-shirts to Africa. The stuff hit the fan and he had to reboot. Africans said they didn’t need your old clothes. They need your investment in their ideas and economy or ARV therapy, or basic education. So think before you give. It could help a lot more people.

10. Keep giving. Yeah, I know giving to causes like AIDS, homelessness, illiteracy, child abuse, poverty etc., can seem like it’s been going on forever. And it has. But like Bono says, we can solve this problem. It is not beyond our reach to have an equitable, livable and sustainable future for all on earth. We can do this. A small act in a small world can make big change.



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