How to Choose a Charity without Feeling Guilty for Turning Others Down

How to Choose a Charity without Feeling Guilty for Turning Others Down
Photo by Tim Mossholder / Unsplash

For the past few months, I’ve been getting more and more solicitations in the mail asking for charitable donations. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind giving away money to worthy causes. Lately, however, it’s been getting to the point where I’ve been donating out of guilt instead of generosity. I feel bad for giving to some, but not others. What’s worse, I don’t even feel good about the charities I do give to because I feel like I’m falling for their marketing ploys. That’s not where I want my heart to be.

It’s one of the many first world problems I was complaining to my mom about one day when she said, “You can’t help everyone. Just pick a few charities you feel connected with and give to them consistently.”

I often tease my mom for giving common-sense advice, but this one really hit me. She’s right. Trying to give to everyone who asks will make you feel helpless, frustrated, and guilty. If you instead pick a few organizations that you feel good about and give to them consistently, you’ll have more impact and more peace with your gifts in the long run.

Giving out of guilt is a dangerous habit to develop because you’ll start to associate the action with the feeling. When I look at it this way, I realize it’s not selfish to turn these random solicitations down because I didn’t pick them.

In other words, when I give to the charities who bombard me with letters because I feel bad, and not because I want to, I start to connect the act of giving with the feeling of guilt. As a result, I end up donating less to everyone because it no longer feels right. Thus, in my mind, it’s more selfish to give to organizations you don’t feel good about. In the short term, giving to anyone who asks looks like the right thing to do, but the end result is net negative.

This isn’t to say I don’t believe in giving spontaneous gifts. If you get a letter in the mail from a charity that resonates with you, by all means, donate! My goal here isn’t to boycott anyone’s fundraising efforts. I simply wanted to be more intentional about my giving so that I’m not always at the whim of marketers.

Ok, that’s great Sarah, but how do you go about finding “organizations you feel connected to?”

Everyone has different values and beliefs so I can’t pick these organizations for you. What I can do is give you some guidance based on how I found the charities I give to now. I recommend setting aside a couple of hours to do your research and reflect on whom you want to trust your money with. It’s not convenient, but it’s worthwhile. I suspect many people give less than they actually want to not because they’re selfish, but because they never intentionally sat down to decide on a course of action. Clarity cuts through indecision and ultimately leads to action. Below are some prompts and resources to get you started.

1. Establish Your Criteria

Everyone’s values and circumstances are different so it makes sense to first outline what you’re looking for in a charity or cause. Below are some of the things I personally looked for in an organization. Yours don’t have to look like mine, but hopefully, these examples get your gears turning.

  1. Effectiveness: I wanted my dollars to go far. Since I live in America, this meant I was mostly looking at international aid charities. Human suffering everywhere is a tragedy, and I don’t want to minimize people in America’s pain, but my money simply goes further in poorer countries. That’s a tradeoff I have to live with.
  2. High Program Expenses: I wanted as much of my donation as possible to go to the services delivered by the charity and not just to fundraising and administrative expenses. These costs are necessary, but I wanted to see them minimized. A good rule of thumb here: if you’re getting excessive solicitations from charities you’ve never contacted before, they’re probably overspending on marketing and underspending on the services they’re promising. I try to avoid these.
  3. Transparency: This one’s pretty self-explanatory. I wanted to give to legitimate organizations that I knew would use my money for what they say they’re using it for.

2. What Causes do you Care About?

Don’t overthink this one. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • Is there a country or region you feel connected to? (maybe your home country, somewhere you did a mission trip, or a place you visited and really loved the people)
  • Is there a cause that tugs at your heartstrings? (animals, nature/climate change, social justice, human rights, etc.)
  • Who can you help that didn’t have the same opportunities as you? If you’re reading this, you’ve already won the ovarian lottery because you A) have access to the internet B) know how to read and C) have enough money to think about giving some away. How can you help elevate other people to your level of opportunity?

3. Where to Look

Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with any of the organizations mentioned below. I’m simply mentioning them because they’re what I’ve actually used. Please do your own due diligence before giving your money away to anyone.

Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking for, it’s time to find an organization(s) that fits the bill. At first, I went about this by Googling: “[Cause I’m interested in] Charity.” While this isn’t a bad starting place, I found that the results weren’t always the most effective organizations, which was one of my criteria.

Eventually, I stumbled upon a few websites that have already done a lot of the research I was looking to do. Giving What We Can attempts to answer the question: “Where can my donations do the most good?” with a list of the best charities to donate to. I found a couple of the organizations I ended up picking through this list (The aforementioned hyperlink leads to the list for 2020. If you’re reading this after 2020, just go to and navigate to their “Learn” section. Unless they redesign the site in the future, there should be a link that says, “What Are The Most Effective Charities In 20XX?”)

Through the Giving What We Can list, I then discovered grantmaking organizations like GiveWelland Animal Charity Evaluators who further research the highest-impact charities in their field and pool money together to be distributed most effectively. GiveWell does this through their “Maximum Impact Fund” in which they determine which organizations are most in need at the time of your donation and distribute your money accordingly. At the end of the year, they tell you which organizations your money went to. If you don’t want to donate to their fund, GiveWell also provides a list of who they deem to be the highest-impact charities you can give to individually.

Animal Charity Evaluators has a similar system with their Recommended Charity Fund, and they also provide a list of the best individual charities in their field. You do give up some control when you go with these funds, but I’m happy to do so knowing that my money is being used effectively.

Keep in mind, these are only two of the organizations out of the very long Giving What We Can list. If you decide to check out this resource, I would suggest you explore all the links for yourself because again, we all have different values and interests.

Another organization I ended up going with is called Kiva. What’s unique about Kiva is that you’re actually loaning money to people in disadvantaged areas. These loans help people start a business, run their farm, or do whatever else they need to get ahead. Eventually, they repay the loan which you can either take out or relend to someone else (which I find much more rewarding). It always makes me smile when I get an email notifying me that one of my people paid back their loan. This might be a good option for you if you feel connected to a certain place or people because you can lend to specific people in specific countries.

4. Vetting Charities

Once you’ve found a few organizations that look good to you, it’s time to vet them. You can grab some low hanging fruit by Googling them and seeing if there’s any negative press associated with their name. Is there a history of fraud, corruption, or coverups? Then steer clear. Another thing you can do is look at their official website. This doesn’t always reveal anything, but if it looks spammy and is trying to ask for your email every five seconds, you might want to be extra cautious.

Once you’ve Googled the charity and narrowed your selections down, it’s time to search them on Charity Navigator. Charity Navigator is an organization dedicated to evaluating charities for donors like you and me. If you search for an organization, you can find information on its finances, effectiveness, and operations. This site specifically helped me vet different charities for “Program Expenses” which, you might recall, was one of my criteria.

As a heads up, you won’t find grantmaking organizations like GiveWell or Animal Charity Evaluators on here because they’re not charities themselves, but are instead non-profits who assess charities for you. You can however look into the individual charities they have listed on their sites.

5. Don’t Worry About the Numbers

I’m a college student with a part-time job so you can probably guess (correctly) that I’m not exactly donating large sums of money to anyone. That doesn’t discourage me from giving because I want to get in the habit of doing so no matter how much money I’m bringing in. Instead of fixating on the dollar amount I’m donating each month, I look at it in terms of percentages. I have it set up so that the amount I give each month is a certain percentage of my income. This way, as I make more money, I give more too.

No matter how much or how little you have, I encourage you to give what you can. It’s the only money I spend every month that I never have ‘buyer’s remorse’ over. I’m aware that I’m in an extremely privileged situation where I have the disposable income to give, and not everyone has this luxury. My goal isn’t to make anyone feel guilty. I just hope that if you do have the means and the poke in your side to give, that this article has helped you figure out how.