Charitable giving on the Web

Although not all charities have a presence in cyberspace, the Internet has made giving easy.

Are last-minute thoughts of America' homeless, Brazilian rain forests or year-end tax deductions keeping you up nights? Then get out of bed, log on and with a few clicks you can be making a difference, whether in Bosnia or on your tax return.

By filling out a form online, you may sponsor a needy child almost anywhere in the world. By buying a hand-woven Navajo rug, you can support Native American senior citizens in Northern Arizona and Utah. You may even stumble onto a site that will help you locate a neighborhood church or fire station that's collecting toys for the holidays.

A few search engines exist that can guide you to a specific charity. Yet for most of us, giving comes from a very special place. A child killed in a car accident compels us to get involved with a seat-belt campaign. A friend dying of AIDS sparks our interest in medical research or bereavement groups. A history of political or religious strife encourages us to support civil liberties. Surfing through Web pages on your own may be a more satisfying way to locate your charity of choice. Here are a few ways to locate that special cause, to give away money creatively and to help bring peace in the New Year.

Search engines and databases
GuideStar provides basic information on more than 650,000 nonprofits, including financial figures such as total assets. But the site can be unwieldy when trying to locate a charity by area of interest, and is probably more useful as a research tool than a consumer guide. Foundation grants support the Web site.

Give to Charity is actually a service for nonprofits that claims it's the 'secure way to donate.' The site offers a limited selection of links to organizations that have registered with the company.

Charities Children of America, an umbrella organization for children's charities, lists its 114 members -- all of them pre-screened and in alphabetical order.

Promoting a world where all people will live "free, dignified and productive lives," Action without Borders, sponsors a database called The Idealist that lists 15,000 organizations. The Browse-the-Country feature can take you to the fragile jungles of Belize or a revolutionary movement in Chiapas, Mexico, almost instantaneously. The global Web site has a pleasing design, including a map of the world that leads you to different countries.

The idea of exchanging volunteer information globally has been a vision of Executive Director Ami Dar since the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon, when he served as an Israeli soldier from 1979-1982. "Looking across the fence at the (Lebanese) soldiers, I knew I had to do something," said Dar from his office in the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Dar, a native of Israel who grew up there and in Peru and Mexico, earns a living working for an Israeli software company and volunteers his time at Action without Borders.

For the children
Disadvantaged children and at-risk youth draw universal attention. Started in 1947, the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program offers a special service for children who celebrate Christmas and either have no Santa or one that can't afford holiday gifts. In 1997, reserve Marines distributed more than 10 million of toys to approximately 4.7 million children, according to Brian A. Murray, director of operations and a retired Marine major. Unfortunately there are more needy children than toys -- 16 million children live in poverty, Murray said.

Christmas gifts may not suit your fancy. But if you're not ready to unload the extra cash in your wallet or write a fat check, do not go to the Save the Children's Web site. Black-and-white photographs of children on almost every screen make a two-dimensional image look very real. Created in 1932, Save the Children has helped youngsters around the globe survive poverty, disasters and more.

The Web site provides several ways to make a contribution. And if you have forgotten someone on your list, or want to start shopping early for next year, Save the Children sells gifts from its Holiday Collection catalog online. "Let it Snow," the scarf pictured here and designed by Katie, age 9, features dancing snowman against a bright red background.

Several charities offer electronic forms online, so within a few minutes you can make a contribution directly. Some still require that you send your contribution by 'snail mail.' The Special Olympics Web site accepts almost any credit card online to contribute to the year-round training and athletic competition of people with mental retardation. AboutFace, a Canadian-based nonprofit that supports children with facial differences, requires that you send a form by regular mail.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has even found a way for us to help children in our nation's capital. Launched in 1994 with Hillary Clinton as its honorary chair, the Children's Charities Foundation Inc. supports programs for disadvantaged children and at-risk youths in the Washington metropolitan area.

The world of medicine
Thousands of health organizations have Web sites with electronic giving options. National charities such as the American Kidney Foundation and the Amercian Heart Association generally have a fast, efficient way to contribute online. Surprisingly, however, large research institutes, such as the American Foundation for AIDS Research, have a lot of useful information online but no means of giving electronically. Smaller nonprofits may not have electronic forms but often refer people to other related charities. For example, God's Love We Deliver -- which delivers meals to homebound people with AIDS -- lists organizations throughout the United States that also deliver meals.

SHARE, a self-help organization for women with ovarian and breast cancer, has an online campaign called "Investing in Survivorship." "Three and half years ago, SHARE was the only organization providing a group specifically for ovarian cancer," said Sharon Florin, a Manhattan artist who was diagnosed with the life-threatening disease in 1995. Since then, Florin has led a support group, gathers all her friends for an annual fund-raising campaign in New York and paints full-time in her studio (only by natural light) instead of holding down a "meaningless, stressful job."

Social programs
A few charities have launched creative campaigns online. Community Eco-design Network in Minneapolis, Minn., offers an economical way to support affordable housing projects. Buy-a-Bale allows donors to contribute as little as $5 (for one bale) toward the construction of a demonstration house, using a historic building technique known as strawbale construction. In general, the organization has received very few, if any, online donations, said Eric Hart, an urban planner who co-founded the organization.

Adopt-a-Native-Elder Program encourages individuals to adopt a traditional Navajo elder. Two times a year, sponsors are required to send food, medicine and clothing to a designated elder living on a reservation in Northern Arizona. You can also view hand-woven rugs online. Don't look, unless you are willing to buy. The rich earth tones of the one-of-kind weaves make giving guiltless.

Save the environment
Environmental groups abound online, from the Nature Conservancy, which preserves habitats and species by buying large tracts of land, to the National Resource Defense Council, which takes on all sorts of legal battles. Whether you want to support North American wolves or grass-roots environmental coalitions in inner cities, the Web can help you locate a group that will welcome your donation.

With commercial trips to wilderness areas -- known as ecotourism -- on the rise, organizations such as the National Protected Areas Conservation Trust in Belize may play a more important role. PACT's Web site, at www.belizenet.com/pact, was working during the research for this story but technical difficulties are now apparent on the site. The trust supports conservation of Belize's natural resources but fosters working with the business community.

Web safety basics
No matter where you decide to give, a few tips about giving online may serve as useful reminders:

Use the same caution as with all Web transactions: Only give to a known entity or one you have researched; pay with a credit card; keep track of your contributions; and double-check your credit card bill.

Research the organization either online or by making a few phone calls. Useful research sites include GuideStar and the Internet Nonprofit Center. The National Charities Information Bureau also provides organizational information online including "Holiday Tips for Givers."

Read the trade publications. Targeted for professionals, the trades may offer additional insight into philanthropic trends and what the organizations are saying about you, the donor. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is the most popular among fund-raisers.

Check tax status. Tax exempt and tax deductible are not the same. Tax exempt means the organization is exempt from paying taxes but does not necessarily mean contributions are tax deductible. If youre really ambitious, you may want to locate the organization's 990 PF Form (required by the IRS for tax-exempt nonprofits with revenues of more than $25,000 that can accept tax-deductible contributions). The Foundation Center, a nonprofit information clearinghouse, maintains copies of the latest 990s at libraries in the cities of New York, Washington, Atlanta, Cleveland and San Francisco. If you're a member of the Associates Program, the Foundation Center will fax copies to other locations.

Take the time to make an educated decision. If you are considering making a large donation, read annual reports, visit the program and talk to other donors.

Whether cyberspace will change the way we give is still an unknown. Twenty thousand pages are viewed each day at the Action without Borders Web site. Yet few contribute online. For now, explore the Web but choose wisely, and feel good about giving -- it is that time of year.