Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine's Day Giving: Rating Charities

I like Valentine's Day, and most holidays, for the simple reason they make us pause and reflect, and maybe start a few little traditions that become special over time. That ritualization, the intimacy that comes from shared traditions, means a lot more to me than the giving of cards or gifts. While I don't have a special tradition for every holiday yet, I like doing something - even if it's just a special dinner - and over time some things become traditions.

I was in the store the other day, marveling at how it wasn't even Valentine's Day yet and they are already putting out Easter stuff. As I strolled the aisles I was struck by all the junk laid out for people to buy. Lots of stuffed animals in pink, red and white which will probably not be enjoyed much past V-Day. Tons of candy and chocolate, just what an obese nation needs. Tons of cheap plastic toys and other items destined to become clutter and garbage within days of receipt. The Easter stuff was just as bad. I wondered how much money Americans will be spending on junk this holiday, and what it would take (if it's even possible) to get them to make other choices, maybe even giving to charity what they would spend on some not-needed item.

It didn't used to bother me, I guess because I grew up in America, used to constant materialism and a land of plenty. Although I was raised in a poor family, we had the basics we needed. I considered myself pretty thrifty and not materialistic. I don't really like shopping, I keep cars and clothes alike at least 10 years, and I am not really impressed by physical items. (I never want to own a diamond, in any form, or a fancy car...none of that holds any appeal). So, in my own mind anyway, I was not particularly materialistic or particularly wealthy. I gave to charities here and there, but not on a monthly basis or as a way of life - more like impulse donations in response to mailings or issues. Then I saw Kenya, and that changed all my perceptions.

It's stunning to see people who have literally NOTHING - no homes, no clothes, no jobs, no prospects, no food, no electricity, no roads, no power, no running water. Just nothing, period. And yet, they are out there, in droves. And many of them find ways to survive. Some get clothes or build huts of paper and sticks or trek 50 miles with a donkey to bring back water. Some just die. The problems seem to come about when traditional tribal villages are abandoned and people head to the cities in hope of a job or a better life, only to find that they are far worse off without the protections and traditions of the village they knew.

All of the tribal villages I saw were very happy, with dung huts, traditional loincloths, some goats and some cattle, some spears and primitive tools. They had next to nothing, in many cases lacking education as well as possessions, yet they had very decent living conditions and a thriving culture and frankly, a very admirable society. It was like a trip back in time; they were living the way they did hundreds of years ago, and still doing well following their traditions.

Seeing these things I suddenly felt my life was way too cluttered. I'm not tossing out the dining room table, but I came back with a desire to go through and get rid of a lot of things. And I have a new perspective on charity altogether; now it's a regular, planned part of my life. But, I wanted to make sure every dollar I gave was well used. I definitely won't give to any religiously affiliated group, as I saw egregious abuses of church "charities" throughout Kenya. So, I did some research on each charity and put together a portfolio of charities that protect and conserve wildlife and habitat, and help the most oppressed people in the world.

To research charities, there are at least three websites where you can obtain ratings and look at how your dollars are used: Charity Navigator, Guidestar.org, and Give.org. I personally like Charity Navigator best, as they assemble the information into an easy to use star rating system and I like their formatting and searching capabilities best. All will give you the raw data you need to see how money is being used.

Personally, I settled on the charities listed below to support to further my goals. I cancelled caller ID and satellite TV and some magazine subscriptions and so forth and re-allocated the money to charities in order to give throughout the year, not once in awhile.

African Wildlife Foundation - a four star charity focusing on both habitat and species conservation
Animal Legal Defense Fund - three star charity, focused on using the legal system to protect abused animals and improve their conditions
Best Friends Animal Society - three star charity and a leading no-kill animal sanctuary
Cheetah Conservation Fund - specific to cheetah preservation
Defenders of Wildlife - three star charity dedicated to wildlife protection
Environmental Defense Fund - three star charity dedicated to environmental protection
International Rescue Committee - three star charity helping the world's most oppressed people
Nature Conservancy - four star charity preserving habitat
Rainforest Alliance - three star charity, focus on preserving rainforests and the species within
Sierra Club - not a non-profit, as they do lobbying on behalf of animals and habitat preservation
World Wildlife Fund - three star charity dedicated to helping wildlife

It would be nice if, on Valentine's Day, instead of buying tacky garbage, people gave gifts of love to others by donating to charities they care about. After all, there are plenty of ways to show love for those around you without buying them more stuff.

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