There are more than 1.5 million non-profit organizations operating in the United States today. Take a moment to absorb that number. That is approximately one non-profit for every 207 people living in the nation.

Despite economic distress, giving in the United States remains high. According to the Nonprofit Center for Charitable Statistics, in 2010 individuals gave $211.77 billion. Yet, if you talk to a fundraising professional, they will tell you the culture of giving in America has changed and they are having a harder time finding donors. The problem, however, is not the generosity of donors, the problem is that donors don’t know how to direct their money to the right organizations.

As a genealogist you may be looking for a way to give back to the community through a donation to a worthy genealogical society or program. With so many charities competing for donations, how can you find the right organization and make a lasting impact?

After nearly a decade of working in various development (fundraising) capacities for non-profit organizations, the last role as the development director of a symphony, I am aware of how important even a small contribution can be when placed in the right hands.

Before you open your checkbook, there are some important questions you need to ask of an organization:

  1. What is this organization’s mission? Non-profits often have vague mission statements with lofty goals. If they do not have a clearly defined and achievable mission, they are unlikely to have a meaningful and sustainable impact. Pass on these, there are better candidates for your support.
  2. Are they achieving their mission? What programs currently exist to carry out their mission and how do they measure the success of those programs? Again, if they are vague and can not answer this question directly and thoroughly in a way that demonstrates real impact, do not make a contribution.
  3. Who is leading the organization? Review the board of directors list and look at the bios of the administration. If the contribution you are making is a large one, you may ask to interview a member of the board. A high performing organization will be happy to oblige. You should be skeptical of an organization that makes it difficult for you to access its leaders.
  4. What is the annual budget and how much is the organization spending on overhead versus programs? Non-profits must all file a Form 990. Their financials are available on the site Look for red flags. For instance, if an organization’s annual budget is $1.2 million but their Executive Director is making $350,000 per year, move on to a more efficiently run organization.
  5. What specifically will your contribution be funding?   
  6. How will you be recognized for your gift? If legacy is an important aspect of your motivation to give, talk plainly and openly with the organization about what you are looking for.

As a genealogist I am partial to organizations that are doing good works for the genealogical community. I think highly of the Washington State Library’s “Ask a Librarian” program where librarians offer a free look-up service for obituaries and documents in the Washington State Library’s holdings. Another way to make an immediate and lasting impact is to make a donation to cover the cost of digitizing a local genealogical society’s collection. In a recent posting, “The ravages of fire, part 1: A local institution goes up in smoke” I talk about the importance of digitizing records before fire or other natural disasters destroy them. Most small genealogical societies have still not attended to this important task due to a lack of funding. It is also a great way to be recognized in a local newspaper for your contribution.


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