Giving with your head and your heart

Many find their holiday spirit in giving selflessly to others. And for thousands of Minnesotans, that means cutting a check to their favorite local charity.

But with so many nonprofits vying for your coveted donation, it can be overwhelming and oftentimes difficult to choose what charity to give to.

There are 32,000 registered nonprofit organizations in Minnesota alone, translating into one charity for every 60 residents and more than $5.5 billion in donations annually. Our generosity was also recently highlighted during November’s Give to the Max Day 2013 when over 52,000 people raised $17.1 million for local charities in just 24 hours.

But, within this momentous amount of giving are also nonprofits that take advantage of our Minnesota nice. Fraudulent charities in our state have included an organization claiming to provide services to disabled veterans, a housing and addiction recovery group, a postal workers union and even a Minnesota youth hockey association. All of those groups — and many more — have been cited for incomplete financial fillings, missing funds, embezzlement or theft. 

So, how should a well-intentioned Minnesota donor select, evaluate and ultimately give to the most upstanding organizations in our state?

Many nonprofit experts agree that responsible charitable giving means using both your head and your heart. 

Finding a cause

Selecting a nonprofit in our state can be overwhelming, especially when there are so many organization tackling different causes, missions and goals. That’s why it’s important to choose a charity that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about, said Kris Kewitsch, the executive director of the Charities Review Council.

“Giving is so specific to each individual,” she said. “More than anything, I think it’s finding out what you’re passionate about.”

Using large searchable databases such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator, or smaller statewide listings like the Minnesota Attorney General’s website and the Charities Review Council can help donors determine an area of interest. 

Once a cause is chosen, it’s important to begin researching the nuts and bolts of the nonprofit, looking for red flags or missing information along the way.

“There are three levels on which you evaluate a nonprofit — their impact, evaluation, and donations,” said Rob Routhieaux, an associate professor of nonprofit management at Hamline University.

Impact is defined as how an organization is bettering the lives of their clients and how they are achieving their mission. Looking for a built-in evaluation system and as well as a charity’s forecast for future growth are all important characteristics of an upstanding nonprofit, Routhieaux said.

Kewitsch said donors can easily find local charities that are meeting those characteristics on the Charities Review Council online nonprofit listing. The council uses 27 criteria for vetting nonprofits including their standards for accountability, extent of public disclosure, internal governance and structure, financial oversight and fundraising. 

If you’re looking to dig a littler deeper, visit a searchable online database like GuideStar. Official filing documents such as the nonprofit’s registration status, annual revenue, expense and tax information, mission statement, impact summary and contact information should be readily available to the public through a searchable database.

And if you can’t easily find that information, Routhieaux suggested contacting the nonprofit directly. “People should take the time to actually call up the organization,” he said.

Kewitsch added, “Red flags, are if you ask for information and you don’t get any information from the organization. [Nonprofits] should always be able to articulate the impact that they’re having. If they can’t tell you what difference your gift would make, that should be a red flag.”

Giving your strengths 

Figuring out how you want to give is equally as important as choosing who you want to give to, Kewitsch said.

“Determining where you want to step into a specific issue … and finding all the different ways that you can serve,” is crucial in providing a useful and effective donation, she said.

Thought as “time, talent, treasure’” Kewitsch said that volunteering your time, offering-up your expertise or giving a financial contribution are all viable donations that charities are happy to receive.

If you’re looking to just make a financial donation, charities often allow donors to give toward general operating support or for specific programs. Operating support, “allows the organization to determine how to spend that money” while program funds are earmarked for certain projects, Kewitsch said.

“What a nonprofit wants more than anything is unrestricted funds,” added Routhieaux.  That said, asking questions such as, “What are your biggest needs? What are you needing money for? How can I help the best?” can help maximize your donation.

Both Routhieaux and Kewitsch added that volunteering — either to research an organization or as an actual donation — is always welcomed by reputable charities. 

“I suggest that if you have the time to volunteer, you should do so,” Routhieaux said.  “Organizations like to have volunteers just as much as they like to have money.”


Donating time, talent or treasure couldn’t be more valuable than for Cathy Maes, the executive director of Loaves and Fishes. Her charity, which is based in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis, serves a hot meal to approximately 1,700 Minnesotans every day.

Loaves and Fishes, which was marked as meeting all 27 standards of Kewitsch’s Charities Review Council, uses individual volunteers and donors, as well as gifts from the County and foundations to run their 14 meal sites.

Clients of Loaves and Fishes said they were especially grateful for the gracious giving by local residents while standing in line recently to receive a free lunch at the Salvation Army on Lake Street.

Dining on pulled pork sandwiches, chopped salad, warm bread and French fries, about 80 patrons escaped the bitter November cold to spend an hour eating a freshly cooked meal.

Maes, who frequently visits her service sites, bopped around to dinning room asking clients to rate their meal.

“Can we do anything better?” Maes asked Chip, a longtime Loaves and Fishes client.

“Just keep it coming!” he said.

So, this holiday season, Maes said consider giving to a charity in the way you feel most comfortable.

“The best way to give,” she said, “is the best way for you.”



Charity Navigator:

Loaves and Fishes:

Charities Review Council:

The Office of Attorney General Lori Swanson: Charities Database: