On most mornings of the winter holidays, battling to recover from a gluttony induced Christmas coma, I've been rolling out of bed and onto the roads in preparation for the Edinburgh Meadows Half Marathon, which will take place at the beginning of March. A keen but mediocre runner since my early teens, I've been telling myself I'll take part in this popular annual run since I began university almost four years ago. But deadlines piled sky-high, society commitments, too much fun and, admittedly, laziness, have always seen the event pass me by. Now in my final year and looking for any remotely justifiable excuse to ignore my mounting workload, I hurriedly scrambled through the online registration form when it opened in October. Before I had the chance to reflect on the hours of pain, sweat and frustration that will fill my life until March, it was done.
Amidst all this dread and excitement, I almost forgot one very important element of any race event: the great fundraising opportunity. As an impoverished student and basically a charity case myself, I consider this a great opportunity to achieve a personal goal whilst raising money for a good cause. But then there's the dilemma of discerning just how one deems a single charity more worthy of your money and attention than all the others. In trying to answer this question, a plethora of questions arises: how do I know the money's being well spent? What cause means the most to me personally? Which charities have a good reputation? Do I donate to a local charity or a multinational organisation?
As if these questions weren't already difficult enough to answer, 2012 has seen an increased media focus on the problems charities face, a pressing issue in a world where the nuances of aid requirements are changing faster than they can be identified. The phrase of the moment seems to be 'proceed with caution' in light of increasing media attention on the effectiveness of charities coinciding with a 20% drop in charitable giving over the past year, figures from the National Office of Statistics show. So without further ado, here are a few pointers for all you aspiring philanthropists:
Interrogate yourself... and those around you
You need to identify which fundamental or ethical principle is the most important to you. For example, some people might argue that saving lives should be prioritised over funding cultural institutions, whereas others would say that culture needs to be protected in the aftermath of harsh government cuts. Start asking yourself some basic questions: If you could solve just one problem, what would it be? Once identified, could resolving this problem be a step towards solving wider issues?
You could also examine your own personal interests and skills: Is there a charity that relates to your degree or your job? Do you have a hobby that you'd like to give underprivileged people the chance to get involved in? Or maybe you have friends or family who have been affected by a certain issue. It's important that the cause means something to you; the more interested you are in a charity's objectives, the more focused your research into their organisation will be.
Next you need to figure out whether to give to a local charity or a charity that operates on a wider scale. Less well-known local charities often need more support than international organisations, and many people get satisfaction out of putting something back in to their local community. However, many are often newer and less experienced than many well-established global institutions, so you may have to weigh up your decision based on less evidence of its success, relying instead on the feasibility of the charity's proposed scope and aims.
Don't underestimate the value of evidence-based research
Once you've thought about which values and objectives you want your chosen charity to address, you'll need to check out the available options. Obviously, the best place to start is Google, but there are a few websites which have done all the work so you don't have to. Innovations for Poverty Action and GiveWell use research techniques in order to report on the effectiveness of strategies employed by various charities. Good Intentions Are Not Enough is a well established blog which examines the best and worst of aid giving and how charities can improve their approach for increased effectiveness.
Take a minute to think about causes rather than symptoms
Charities are often criticised for providing short term solutions which solve the symptoms of a problem, but don't develop long-term strategies to eliminate the root of the problem. Often these problems can be qualitatively different - Cancer Reasearch UK, for example, has a clear goal to find a cure for cancer that works, whereas the charities dealing with the eradication of global poverty rely on a combination of smaller targets, ethical considerations and infrastructural improvements. The most effective charities tend to focus on one aim rather than proposing unrealistic blanket solutions, so the simpler the aim the better. Having said this, if it looks like a campaign is oversimplifying the issues, a little fact checking may clear things up.
Make sure you know exactly what your money will be spent on
TV producer, and HuffPost blogger Carrie Lloyd who is experienced in the not-for-profit sector says that at least 80p out of every pound of your donation should go directly towards resources needed to address the cause over any other administrative costs. Obviously, this will all depend on what the aims and services the charity offers. If it offers a counselling service or is based on petitions like Amnesty International, it is likely to be almost entirely spent on services rather than resources. Good charities will often have a page telling you what your money will bring to the cause, with a list of different amounts of money and what can be bought with it. For example, on the World Vision UK website, £27 could provide a month's food for a Syrian refugee child, £48 could provide blankets for a family and £79 could provide a stove for a family. The aims of the charity should be outlined clearly on their website. Again, the simpler these are the better.
Learn from the past
Some of the most prominent charity controversies in the media in recent years have been related to the misuse of funds, leading to questions about aid management. For instance, there was a recent barrage of criticism of the UK military charity Help for Heroes, who were accused of prioritising funding for elaborate Ministry of Defence construction projects rather than everyday care for injured soldiers. Charities which deal with particular crises such as natural disasters have sometimes been criticised for being too quick to respond to what they view as the perceived problems before properly taking into account the demand for resources. The charities that provided aid to Japan after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake came under fire for raising funds before they knew the level of the crisis they were responding to, prompting a chaotic scramble for cash which many argued was improperly distributed, leaving donors wondering what exactly their money was being spent on.
You money is measurable, as are outcomes
You started by looking at the facts, and you need to finish by looking for yet more evidence of outcomes, achievements and stats. Does the charity's ethos match up with what they have achieved since their inception, and how quickly and sustainably have they managed to achieve this? We all love a good success story, and there should be no shortage of case studies and examples of effective aid on the charity's website.
Finally, keep tabs on your charity's progress
Even after you've raised the funds and handed them over, you should track the progress of your chosen charity to make sure that your hard-raised cash was put to good use. If you're really committed to the cause, doing extra volunteering and campaigning for the organisation outside your fundraising activities would give you a great insider's view of how funds are used and how effective they are.
My decision to donate my marathon funds to Amnesty International was based on their excellent reputation, measurable progress and realistic goals. I believe they work to resolve human rights abuses effectively through campaigning for changes to legislation, administration and education. I only hope my own fundraising efforts will be as successful.
Follow Yasmin Morgan-Griffiths on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ymorgang