Dear Umbra,

This year for Christmas, I want to buy hectares of rainforest for some of my in-laws instead of the usual gift items that may end up in someone’s closet and forgotten, if not regifted. How do organizations that protect rainforests in this way operate, and how do I know a high percentage of my investment isn’t going toward administrative costs? Can you recommend a worthwhile program of this nature?

Holden, Mass.

Dearest Nancy,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations matched.

Clever — a gift so large it won’t fit in the closet. It may be forgotten, though, since no one is going to accidentally come across their hectare of rainforest while searching for a lost wingtip.

This year, make someone hoppy.

It would be unfair and irresponsible of me to recommend a rainforest adoption program, to start at the end of your question. Several large nonprofits operate adoption programs, and there must be a canopy full of small groups out there raising money for land preservation. I can’t play favorites, but I can give you some sense of how the groups work, and some ideas for finding one with which you feel comfortable.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Basically, there are at least two models that U.S. nonprofits pursuing this work use: The first is to purchase land outright; the second is to give the money to local partner organizations, who then purchase the land. I spoke with a staffer at one program who emphasized that land purchase is only one component of forest preservation. Stewardship, including protection against poaching or other illegal activities, is an ongoing aspect of rainforest conservation. Although methods for rainforest rescue vary amongst nonprofits, all reputable groups should have strong, ongoing relationships with local organizations and local communities, and participate in post-purchase land care.

One type of “adoption” uses raised funds for land purchase and the costs associated with land ownership and preservation, such as hiring rangers, maintaining ranger buildings, area economic development, and environmental education. I think this style of support is common, and the organization with which I spoke operates this way, raising funds and sending them twice yearly to their local partners. I found another organization that operates differently, funding indigenous groups through a system of small-scale grants.

A reputable organization should be aware of donors’ concerns about where the money goes and address them on their website and in paper propaganda. They should anticipate your questions, in other words, because they are established and experienced. As I mentioned in last year’s column on charitable giving, Charity Navigator is a third-party place to look into an organization’s budget and compare overhead costs with program costs (though it doesn’t rate private charities). Don’t hesitate to call the organization and ask your specific question about how much of your donation will fund the rainforest projects. If they can’t answer, move on to someone else.

I haven’t touched on why one would donate funds to a rainforest protection program. Suffice to say rainforests are amazing, they are being rapidly destroyed, and the implications are terrifying.