EDIT_IMG_1336I started putting together a Christmas wish list gift guide for myself, and then I realized: nobody is going to buy me any of it.

My step-dad donates to charity on my behalf, which I enjoy. My mom gets her Christmas shopping done long before Black Friday – it’s a point of pride for her – so I’m too late for that. My sister always handcrafts something really special for me. My aunt does her shopping at cool museum gift shops in Arizona. The other part of my family who usually relies on my gift guide I don’t think we will see this year. And I will have a long discussion with my fiancé about how we want to thoughtfully gift each other this year. Maybe a nice dinner? So, the gift guide will be completely ignored. Which is just fine.

I decided to take this opportunity on #GivingTuesday to talk about donating to charity instead.

Donating to charity on someone’s behalf is awesome on so many levels. First, you are not giving your money to a large corporation, which in turn gives money to overprivileged CEOs and hedge funds managers. Your money is going to people and organizations who will put it to work not buying third homes, but fixing the food system, restoring wetlands, feeding hungry people, teaching work skills to the underprivileged, etc.

Second, giving to charity is inherently sustainable, even if it’s not a environmentally-focused charity, because it doesn’t involve resources to produce, package, and ship a gift. It just requires an infinitesimal bit of energy to digitally wire some money over. And then, it won’t end up in the landfill when the recipient tires of it.

Third, donating to charity can be one of the most thoughtful gifts out there … if you do it right. (Do not be like that one distant aunt who donated on my behalf to her fundamentalist church. That is weird and so self-serving.) By donating to the right charity on someone’s behalf, you’re saying, “I think your values are amazing and important, and I want to support you in that.” It demonstrates that you have taken the time to find out what they love, do, or believe in.

My biggest tip, and one that I’ve used successfully in the past, is to search on Charity Navigator. Not only does this website allow you to find organizations by keyword, title, or location (the advanced search is awesome) it tells you how efficiently and transparently each organization is using donations, helping you avoid exploitative or even fake charities.

Here’s some questions to ask to find just the right charity:

  • What organizations support their favorite pastime? For example, if they enjoy classical music, you could donate to the local symphony. If they like to garden, you could donate to Seed Savers Exchange. If they enjoy art, donate to a local museum. If they listen to the radio, donate to NPR. Or donate to the local library if they enjoy reading.
  • What organization has supported them in the past or supports them now? My grandmother is part of a wonderful church that is about so much more than Sunday service. The ministers are non-judgmental and welcoming of all races and sexual-orientation. When a member is going through a challenging time, they assign him or her a buddy, who will talk to and check up on him or her. She’s met many of her best friends through the church, one of whom moved in with her for a time when they were both widowed within a year of each other. Everyone knows my grandmother’s name. It’s her community. So donating to her church is a way for me to almost gift her directly, by ensuring they can continue their programs and support for members like her. This isn’t just religious – you could also donate to a research or clinical organization if your recipient is struggling with a health problem, for example.
  • Where do they volunteer? If they volunteer at an organization, not only does it make it an obvious choice where you should donate, they’ll see your money at work firsthand, making it all the more special.
  • What is their career? Some careers will afford obvious choices. If they are a teacher, Donors Choose, a charity that lets teachers ask for money to purchase certain items, is a great choice. If they work in fashion, Dress for Success might be meaningful. If they work in medicine, Doctors Without Borders does the trick. For me, I use the Environmental Working Group‘s research and Skin Deep database constantly for EcoCult, so I would appreciate someone donating to them for sure!
  • Which green space is closest to them? Everyone loves having access to unspoiled nature. Is there a garden or park near to them that is a 501(c)(3)? (That’s the official non-profit designation.) Even if they have never been there before, a donation on their behalf might inspire them to go check it out and then you’ve given them a relaxed and tranquil day in nature. I donated to the Desert Botanical Garden a couple years ago on my aunt and uncle’s behalf – it’s a 4-star organization I found on Charity Navigator. When I next visited, we all took a trip out there and spent a beautiful afternoon exploring the grounds.
  • Where did they grow up or what do they consider “home”? A few years ago I donated to an organization spearheading the Gulf oil spill cleanup on my other grandmother’s behalf, because she grew up on the coast of Mississippi. What environmental or social organizations are working in your recipient’s hometown?
  • Do they have a special affinity for animals? What kind of pet do they have or have had? What kind of wild animals makes them squeal in delight? There are many animal rescue and sanctuary organization in the U.S. helping animals large and small, from chihuahuas to elephants. A bonus is that sanctuaries (like the one my mom donates to on my behalf, The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee) have webcams that can make the gift even more meaningful.
  • Where have they traveled? Did they come back from a trip raving about India or Peru? Find out what organizations are doing good work there. Bonus if it addresses a social ill they learned about while traveling.
  • What do they attribute their success and happiness to? Your recipient might have told you about an inflection point that led them to where they are now. If not, ask! It’s a great conversation to have regardless. Whether it was their college (donate to their alma mater), a big brother (donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters), playing a sport growing up (donate to a local kids sports league), or discovering mindfulness (donate to a non-profit mediation center), the goal is to donate to an organization that can help others without as much financial and emotional support find the same success and happiness as your recipient.
  • What have they posted about on Facebook? Still stumped? Look through their Facebook page to see if they’ve posted about organizations or issues that they care about.

There you have it! Follow these suggestions, and your recipient will be touched by the thoughtfulness and heartfelt nature of your gift. The fact that it helps someone else? Well, that’s the icing on the cake.