Business & Development

How Do You Donate Your Money Responsibly in a World in Constant Need?

Navigating the charitable giving landscape can be daunting.

From our inboxes to our social media feeds, we’re bombarded with stories of people in need. Navigating the charitable giving landscape can be daunting.

In Baltimore, there are many organizations working to meet the needs of the city—more than 4,500, according to Maryland Nonprofits, a Baltimore-based group that helps nonprofits across the state to grow, learn, connect, and achieve their missions. And that number doesn’t include state, national, and international charities.

While it’s wonderful to see so many groups aiming to aid, it can be hard to know which to contribute to.

“People may be solicited multiple times from all different causes,” says Amy Coates Madsen, vice president for programs and director of the Standards for Excellence Institute at Maryland Nonprofits. She adds that you can note if the solicitor has the Seal of Excellence. The Seal of Excellence is a national program run by Maryland Nonprofits with a national reach. About 200 organizations around the country are currently recognized for outstanding work by the seal.

Along with looking into an organization’s mission, Madsen suggests researching its values and approach to ensure it aligns with one’s own. A legitimate group will be recognized as a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit organization in order to receive tax deductible contributions, a status that can be checked on the Internal Revenue Service’s website. Potential donors also can verify if an organization is registered to solicit contributions via the Secretary of State’s office.

Maggie Gunther Osborn, president and CEO of Maryland Philanthropy Network, recommends “If they’re on GuideStar, they’ve been vetted,” she says.

A constant discussion is whether it is better to give a lot to one organization, or a little to lots, Madsen says. In her opinion, it’s a personal choice. But if a person isn’t sure where to start, giving a small amount to several organizations could help them become more educated about several nonprofits, she explains. Later they may choose to focus their giving on one or two they’ve found most closely align with their own values. The bigger concern is if people are giving at all.

“People are struggling across the world, and we’re struggling in this country and city,” Osborn says. “Middle-income folks have really dropped in terms of their ability to respond [to donation requests], fewer folks every year are giving to charity and it’s that middle-income area that we’re losing.”

Osborn reasons this is because the world sees mega-everything now, including megadonors.

“We tend to think about philanthropy as being massive—MacKenzie Scott, the Gateses, or whoever is giving large amounts,” she says. “But the reality is the majority of giving is not on that level. The majority happens from the average individual and their charitable instincts to support their neighbors, churches, kids’ schools or athletics, an art museum, whatever it may be.”


“We tend to think about philanthropy as being massive—MacKenzie Scott, the Gateses, or whoever is giving large amounts, but the reality is the majority of giving is not on that level.”


It might be easy for someone to assume five dollars won’t make a difference but, according to Osborn, it matters to both the giver and receiver. Giving fulfills the human desire and capacity to respond to need with empathy and generosity, and if many people contribute small amounts, it could still result in a substantial amount for the receiver.

There is merit to giving to national and international organizations along with local ones. Some needs are close to home, such as providing food for the many hungry families right here in Baltimore or donating clothes to a place like House of Ruth Maryland, Osborn says. “I can see and feel that right here,” she explains. “But I also care deeply about national issues that can only be affected by national infrastructure,” she continues, “such as voter registration and safe access to the right to vote.”

Supporting local organizations can look different than supporting work done abroad. On some occasions material donations are needed, and sometimes cash really is king. While donating clothes within the city is helpful, it might not be the most productive way to aid the refugees in Ukraine, for example.

“The cost to ship items can outweigh the cost of the items the people are receiving,” Madsen says. “Cash donations are sometimes preferred; we hear that when it comes to big natural disasters, as well.”

Though new needs are ever arising, changes in the local charitable sector offer hope. According to Osborn, leaders from disinvested-in communities that have previously gone unseen are starting to gain deserved attention.

“Some great entrepreneurs are working to elevate the talent and energy in Baltimore that has not been tapped into, that’s been on
the fringes,” she says, adding there are also new models of participatory grantmaking where the community works alongside donors to make funding decisions.

“There is so much to be done in Baltimore alone, it can be overwhelming,” Osborn says. “But then I remember how many great people there are doing work.”

Steps to Give Smart

By Christianna McCausland

Not sure where to start on your philanthropic journey? Charity Navigator, the world’s largest and most-utilized independent nonprofit evaluator, offers the following tips to help you find the nonprofit match you’ve been looking for.

IDENTIFY the causes you care about, then make a list of organizations operating in the sphere.

RESEARCH those organizations. Verify they are a 501(c)(3), understand their financial health, and learn how and where donations are used.

CONTACT the organization by phone. Particularly to avoid scams, call and ask for their Employer Identification Number (EIN).

DECIDE how you want to give. An unrestricted gift? Once a year? Quarterly?

FOLLOW UP in six months or a year after donating to see how your money is being used before you decide on a long-range giving plan.