Opinion Tips for donating to charities this Christmas

OPINION: It's Christmas - a time for giving. We can make a difference, but there are important points to consider before we open our wallets, writes Gina Anderson, from UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.

Christmas giving web

OPINION: It's Christmas - a time for giving.  After a year of disasters both natural and man-made, many of us are thanking our lucky stars and thinking of others.

I know many people, however, who care about their communities and their world, but feel overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by the big issues society faces and their inability to fix them; by the intractable issues in their local community and by the number of charities seeking their support.

Others worry about the trade off between say helping starving children and saving whales.  They feel guilty if they choose the whales. As a consequence they ask what's the point? What difference can I make?

You can make a big difference.

Start by giving small.  You don't have to be Bill Gates.  You will be surprised how a small donation from me, added to a small donation from you, can make a big difference to someone or something.

Indeed the vast majority of donations in this country are made up of small contributions, rather than the major donations highlighted in the media.

Of course, we've all heard criticisms of charities ''wasting'' donations on administration instead of using the bulk of it on the causes they purport to help. But there are steps you can take to help you decide where to donate your money.

Most people give to the causes they have a personal connection to, so begin by deciding on the issue or issues that you care about most.

Ask around to find out who is doing a good job in your local community or if you want other options there are also lists of charities on the Philanthropy Australia, ourcommunity and Probono Australia websites.

The next question is always how do you know which charity will do a good job with your money? Please be assured that almost all charities are doing a very good job with the limited resources they have.

Indeed, through the use of volunteers, they are able to do an outstanding job with your donations.

However, whether it's native animals, opera, cancer research, homelessness or a myriad other causes, do your research.  Use the internet, talk to friends, workmates and others in your community.

Personally, when I am looking to make donation to a charity I start by going to the Australian Business Register and checking to see that the organisation is registered.

Then I go to their website to find out who runs the organisation, who is the chief executive and who's on the board.  If I can't find this information quickly and easily I become wary.

I also like to read their annual report, newsletters and media releases to understand what the charity does, what projects they are running, how they know they are making a difference, and why they are seeking donations.

I also like to read the financial section of the annual report.  If their administration costs seem high, say more than 25 per cent, I look for an explanation.  If I can't find it, my suspicions are immediately raised.

If I decide I want to support a particular charity but have some unanswered questions, I contact the charity directly and ask them before making a donation.  I also start with a small gift. Only when I feel comfortable with a charity and its work do I make a larger donation.

Remember, donations are gifts not requirements.  Give this Christmas and be generous because you care, because you want to.  You might even find that there is great joy in giving.

Gina Anderson, is Philanthropy Fellow at UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.