Give Your Best, this Giving Tuesday

Caroline Fiennes explains how to maximize the effect of your donation, even if you have no money at all. [This article was first published by GivingTuesday.]

The basics which you must know about charities before you start

Some charities are miles better than others 

This sounds rather heretical because we often think that all charities are good. But we also think that teaching is good, and so is providing medical care, and yet we know that some teachers are better than others, some doctors, some treatments. It’s the same with charities, so your choice matters.

For example, in Kenya, where diarrhoea from dirty water is a major problem, delivering chlorine to households can prevent diarrhea for a certain cost, but giving people chlorine at the village water source achieves the same result for less than half that cost.

Similarly in North India, free village clinics are pretty good for getting children immunised. But if clinics offer mothers free lentils for every child immunised, immunisation rates increase more than six times.

And in Southern India – where I was once a teacher – children skip school a lot.  Giving the parents cash if their children show up (a respectable and widely used idea, called a ‘conditional cash transfer’) solves some of this, but giving out free school uniforms achieves ten times as much. And that’s peanuts compared to dealing with intestinal worms which many children there have: for the same price, ‘deworming’ can achieve 25 times as much.

Do the maths. Or cheat.  

The catch is that choosing wisely is hard, because charities rarely have these comparative data: a leaflet picturing a school child doesn’t indicate much about an organisation’s performance. So ignore the fundraising literature and look under the bonnet at what the charity actually does and whether it’s good at it. Making a difference depends on having a good ‘idea’ (strategy) and implementing it well. If you’re into formulae, think of it as: impact = idea x implementation.

In fact, since choosing wisely can be fiddly and laborious, find somebody smart and copy their homework! The charity world includes two types of people who’ve already done their homework in detail. First, are independent analysts. GiveWell analyses charities in great detail and only recommends about 1% of the charities it assesses. They’re all in international development, mainly public health. Charity Navigator* is much broader, publishing analysis on several thousand US-registered charities. Its ratings look at the charities’ performance on financial criteria, and transparency and accountability, and it’s adding information about their results. Global Giving is ‘an eBay’ for international development, and lists many grass-roots organisations which it has vetted.

Second, many charitable trusts and foundations employ people to analyse charities to decide which ones the trusts should fund. Some (but not all) of them are robust, and you’ll be pretty safe supporting charities which they back. You only have to find one whose interests match yours. If you’re interested in creating jobs in the US, look at F.B.Heron Foundation; if it’s poverty in New York City, look at the Robin Hood Foundation, for international development, look at Hewlett Foundation. A good signs is when a foundation publishes a sensible-looking strategy and criteria.

Don’t look at administration costs

People often think that low admin costs are a good sign. It turns out that they’re not. The costs which get shown in a charities accounts (and I wrote a whole book once about charities’ accounts, so I know!) include all kinds of useful things like systems to monitor results and evaluate what’s working and to make improvements. It’s more accurate to think of them as management costs: and so it’s rather unsurprising thatanalysis shows that charities with higher ‘admin’ costs tend to perform better.

But I don’t have any money 

Well then, rustle up money for charity from thin air! Try variants of these ideas:

Friends. Starfish, a charity which helps HIV/AIDS orphans in South Africa, is supported by young professionals in the West. They hosted dinner parties in their homes and got guests to donate to Starfish the money which they would have spent if the party had been in a restaurant: money which nobody had earmarked for charity.

Neighbours. Fred Mulder lives in London, UK, and was in a dispute with his neighbors over access to some land that he owns. Rather than all hire expensive lawyers to resolve it, Fred offered to give his neighbours perpetual access if they each (Fred included) donated £25,000 towards an educational charity in Zambia. This generated over £100,000 for charity and improved the neighbours’ relationship, which a legal fight never would have done.

Clients. Fred Mulder is full of these ideas. He’s an art dealer, and sometimes when negotiations with clients get become stuck, he suggests that the difference between his price and the offering price be donated to charity.

Bulk purchasing. A financial services company in a medium-sized British town includes various charities in its IT purchasing processes, so they benefit from the company’s volume discounts.

Hotel toiletries: Some business people who travel a lot give the complimentary toiletries from hotels to a domestic violence refuge. For people on the run from a violent partner, it’s nice if somebody’s provided some decent shampoo.

Things to give which aren’t money

Blood Find your nearest blood donation session at

Bone marrow Some tissue types are more common in certain ethnic groups of the population, meaning that a patient normally needs a donor from a similar ethnic background to her own. There’s a particular need for stem cell donors from African, African-Caribbean, Asian, Chinese, Jewish, Eastern European and Mediterranean communities. You can register as a bone marrow or stem cell donor when you give blood or at

Business clothes Disadvantaged women trying to get back into work need business clothes – as well as training and confidence – for interviews and when they start work. Dress for Success works in nine countries, and has now helped over 550,000 women.

Cars Several organisations will collect an unwanted car and turn it into money for charity through

Computer equipment Which? has a useful guide to recycling computers

Coupons and free stuff. You can donate the buy-one-get-one free items you don’t want. I know some business people who are constantly travelling and give the complimentary toiletries from hotels to a domestic violence refuge: if you’re on the run from a violent partner, it’s nice if somebody’s been thoughtful enough to provide some decent shampoo.

Cycles A number of nonprofit organisations refit unwanted bicycles to send to countries such as Haiti and South Africa, in the process training people in the UK to repair bikes. and

Furniture The Salvation Army will take furniture to sell in its shops or pass on to homeless people settling in a new home.

Gardens Landshare brings together people who want to grow their own food but have no place to do it and those who have land to share but lack time, experience or muscle-power.

Glasses Visionaid Overseas organises a nationwide recycling scheme for old or unwanted spectacles.

Musical instruments can go to school music programmes, senior citizens, talented young students, community groups, and charities can use them at events and as prizes to help raise money.

Paint Community RePaint schemes collect unwanted, surplus paint and re-distribute it to individuals, families and communities in need, improving the wellbeing of people and the appearance of places across the UK.

You can even give your hair! If you have more than ten inches of hair cut off, take it home and donate it to make wigs for people who’ve lost hair due to medical treatments.

The rest?  

  • Charity shops take clothes, books, records, CDs, DVDs and jewellery, and some take furniture and electrical goods. Remember to fill in a Gift Aid form.
  • Primary schools and nurseries can use all sorts of things for craft projects: fabric, knitting wool, rolls of wallpaper, old Christmas cards, jars and bottles. Just ask first.
  • Find a new home for almost anything on Freecycle and save it from
  • Lend it to people in your neighbourhood through
  • Sell it and donate the proceeds. Through the online marketplace eBay you can donate the proceeds from selling virtually anything to a charity of your choice. Secondhand books can also be sold through Abebooks and Amazon.

But do check with the charity first. People donate real junk, so much so that aid agencies run an annual competition for Stuff We Don’t Want (#SWEDOW). Past winners have included second-hand knickers(!), and the 2.4 million Pop-Tarts® airdropped onto Afghanistan by the US government in 2002. Far from amusing tales, these items create costs for charities because they need storing and sorting, and simply become a hindrance. It’s not difficult to check that a charity needs an item before sending it.

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