Every year I give a little more money to charity than I did the previous year. But to be honest, my total contributions are still pretty meager. And by the standards laid out by ethicist Peter Singer, they qualify as positively stingy. In a New York Times editorial, Singer espoused a progressive approach to giving, much like we see with our income taxes: The more you make, he says, the bigger percentage of your income you should give.
His baseline suggestion? The top 10 percent of earners--those with average annual income of $132,000--should be donating at least 10 percent.
Whether you adhere to this or make your own rules, deciding how much to give is the easy part--it's choosing a charity that's hard. I have a tough time deciding who should get my help. Each cause makes a compelling argument, yet my resources are limited. So to narrow the options, I've adopted a handful of guidelines.
Make it personal. If you know someone with cancer, you might funnel your funds to the American Cancer Society. If you feel strongly about animal welfare, you might contribute to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Keep the cause close to your heart, and you'll be more inclined to donate willingly.
Think local. "Charity begins at home," the old saying goes, and that's often a great way to go. You'll be more familiar with local projects, and you can take comfort knowing that your money will stay within your community.
Find help online. Sites like CharityWatch, Charity Navigator and GuideStar rank organizations by a variety of metrics to help you find the groups that make the best use of their money. Charitable Choices takes a different approach: It tells the stories behind the more than 300 charities that have passed its screening process.
Once you've found a cause you wish to support, verify that it's legitimate. Check for a mailing address and phone number (seriously). Confirm the organization's tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status. And make sure you get a receipt from the charity, complete with its Tax ID number, so you can claim the deduction on your tax return.
Donate your time. Finally, don't forget about volunteer work. Even if you can't afford--or are unwilling--to give your money to charity, you can certainly help your chosen cause with the gift of your knowledge or labor. In fact, that's the route I tend to take. Although I haven't contributed much cash this year, I have volunteered more than 100 hours in my community. I find that giving hours instead of dollars is a better way to feel more connected to the causes I support.