Hey Umbra,

With strict instructions from me, my parents decided to skip most of the presents this Christmas and give me the big-ticket item I had requested: money to give away. They’ve given me $1,000, far more than I expected, to donate to the charity of my choice. What environmental organizations would you recommend? (Other than Grist, of course!) Large groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club do wonderful work, but $1,000 is a drop in the bucket to them. How can I make this money go the farthest?

Emily
Ojai, Calif.

Dearest Emily,

Holy cow. Genius. Great idea, and good follow-through by parents. You reversed the normal eco-gift dilemma. Usually the eco-head risks ire for giving nothing or donating to charity (which I did this Christmas, to mixed results). Switcheroo. Didn’t you have a charity in mind when you requested the money? Or perhaps you daredn’t hope.

Pass the bucks.

Photo: iStockphoto

I don’t have a specific charity to suggest (other than Grist, of course!), because that would be irresponsible of me. But I do have sundry comments and potentially helpful tips as per usual. Firstly, no decent nonprofit would sneer at your $1,000. Any nonprofit worth supporting will gratefully take your money, use it well, and respectfully court you as a lifelong funder who will potentially increase annual donations. If an organization raises operating funds from both individuals and grantors, they may additionally benefit from mid-smallish donors like yourself by demonstrating a diversity of stakeholder participation to funders.

Following on that thought, it wouldn’t be necessarily bad to donate to a large org, which should have a good economy of scale if it’s well run and also may have high effectiveness due to high profile and good reputation. That is to say, your money would go far despite being a “drop in the bucket.”

Perhaps start your decision process by writing down the charities you are considering, and adding to that list with a little research. Ask friends and family if they have environmental organizations they respect, particularly local ones. To jog your memory for other orgs you’ve heard of but forgotten, think about the issues most important to you and search the internet; Wikipedia of course has a list of environmental organizations, as does Yahoo, and various green groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council keep good link lists.

Consider whether you are getting ready to make a long-term relationship with an organization. It will benefit them to know they have a new reliable donor, and it may benefit you in that you will feel involved and not have to go through this decision process each time you have money to spare. Visit the websites of organizations on your list and learn more about their projects, get a sense of how well organized and transparent they are, how they set and meet goals or measure their progress toward goals, whether they are effective. Call them and ask these questions if you feel bold enough, or at least get an annual report.

If you find an organization and are not sure of its legitimacy, you could check the National Association of State Charity Officials for links to IRS and state information on charitable orgs. An interesting and well traveled site is Charity Navigator, which evaluates the efficiency of nonprofits and has a lot of helpful, clear information about choosing where to spend your money. They have an “environment” section, in which you could search for previously unknown groups (this would probably also assuage any concerns about legitimacy). Charity Navigator does not evaluate program performance, but rather looks at tax return-based information as an indicator of organizational health and efficiency.

All that sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what I’d suggest: If you have an organization in mind right now whose work you think you admire, just look over their website to get a more thorough idea of their structure and achievements. Check them out at Charity Navigator and if you like what you see, go ahead and donate. It doesn’t have to be too complicated. And congratulations.

Financially,
Umbra