I didn’t even have an email account until college – but here I am writing a blog on social media networking.  In philanthropy, social media is an important tool and one that comes naturally to a younger generation – but the rest of us need it as well!  It is changing the way we seek out information, how we engage with each other, and how we make financial contributions to support the causes and charities that we care about.

Sometimes digital humanitarianism is called “clicktivism”, in that the prolific information and social media activity supports but cannot replace social action.  If one follows the dollars though, it is clear that online fundraising is a very important tool.  There are many online platforms for crowd-sourcing including YouCaring, CrowdRise, IndieGoGo, GoFundMe, and others. Some causes (building a school) require a finite amount of funds to complete.  Others causes (supporting the organizations that help refugees during an ongoing conflict) require continual funding.  

Some causes go viral. Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge?  That was started by professional golfers to raise money for various charities. In the summer of 2014, it went mainstream when Matt Lauer took the challenge on NBC’s Today Show on July 15.  On the same day, golfer Chris Kennedy did the challenge to benefit the ALS Association. The ALS Association reports that they received $19.4 million in donations in the fiscal year ending on Jan 31, 2013, before the Ice Bucket Challenge.  Once the challenge went viral, they received over $100 million between July 29 and August 29, 2014.

But did they need $100 million?  Could they spend it effectively and monitor the results? Would the funding have saved more lives if it was spent on something less trendy such as malaria or clean water?  Whenever you make a contribution, it is important to do your research – which is a lot easier than it used to be.

Charity Navigator objectively rates major charities, and offers tips for evaluating charities in general.  For example, if a donation page doesn’t have a valid Secure Socket Layer (SSL) appearing as https:// then it is almost certainly fraudulent.  Whenever there is an emergency, there are also going to be scammers trying to siphon off donations for themselves.  According to the FBI, up to 60% of the 4,000 website collecting donations during Hurricane Katrina may have been fake.  Be wary of new organisations.

Other ways to research before you donate include:

CharityWatch.org: The official site of the American Philanthropic Institute allows anyone to search for information (good and bad) on hundreds of charities.  CharityWatch does not merely repeat what a charity reports using simplistic or automated formulas.  It lets you know how efficiently a charity will use your donation to fund the programs you want to support. CharityWatch also exposes nonprofit abuses and advocates for your interests as a donor.

BBB.org: The Better Business Bureau’s mission is to be the leader in advancing marketplace trust. Search the Better Business Bureau’s site to research international and domestic charities and learn which ones are accredited by the BBB.

IRS.gov: The federal government gives non-profit organizations 501 (c) (3) status if they meet certain requirements, and they need to continue to meet those requirements to maintain the status. This allows an organization to have tax-exempt status and people who donate to these organizations can (within certain guidelines) deduct the amount of the donation from their taxes. You can search for organizations who qualified and maintained their tax-exempt status.

To be fair, other means of fundraising can be fraudulent or inefficient. Take the Cancer Fund of America for example – from 2010 and 2013, Cancer Fund of America and its associated charities raised over $110 million dollars.  It paid over $75 million of that to the for-profit fund-raising companies that solicited donations for them.  Cancer patients benefited from less than a penny for every dollar donated.  When someone approaches you on the street representing a charity, a significant portion of your donation will be provided to that person through commission.  They will do their best to engage you in conversation but if you want to have more of an impact, write down the name of the charity, research it, and then make your contribution over the internet when/if you are ready to do so.

There are good causes all over the world, and social media is playing a major role in getting the word out about them and how to provide support.  Exercise some caution and skepticism, but don’t let it prevent you from helping those good causes to your heart’s content.