How to Wisely Navigate the Annual Flood of Donor Appeals

Every year at this time it happens: Mailboxes from New York to California are flooded with year-end appeals from nonprofit organizations seeking donations. The appeals highlight giving opportunities for child sponsorship, rescue missions and many other kinds of ministries. With everything else going on during the holiday season, the seemingly incessant requests for cash can be confusing-even overwhelming-for many folks. How do we decide which ones merit our consideration . . . and money?

Which ministries to support becomes all the more challenging when we consider the current economic conditions, which are continuing to squeeze giving. According to Giving USA, known as the annual yearbook of American philanthropy, charitable giving inched up by less than 1 percent last year, after accounting for inflation.

This tepid number means that total giving in the United States isn't coming close to erasing the huge losses that occurred when the economy went into recession. Giving USA estimates that, at current rates, giving will not return to pre-recession levels until 2022-a full decade from now.

"If we continue to grow at this rate," says Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, "it will take more than a decade to get back to where we were in total giving in 2007." Robert Sharpe, a Memphis fundraising consultant, concurs. "The bleeding stopped in 2010," he told the Chronicle of Philanthropy, "but the recovery is anemic."

Meanwhile, the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, which studies philanthropic trends, reports that during the first half of this year, giving fell among 29 percent of the 770 groups studied, compared with the first half of 2011. Giving was flat for another 25 percent. Only 46 percent recorded increases.

The picture is somewhat better for Christian nonprofits, including churches. The 2012 Annual State of Giving report of the ECFA (Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability), which will be out shortly, is expected to show a 2 percent improvement among the ECFA's 1,700 member organizations.

Of course, as with the larger universe of philanthropy, the latest gains are expected to be decidedly uneven. Larger organizations, with the resources to keep more closely in touch with donors, are doing better. Churches, for their part, usually experience more consistent giving than other nonprofits. Smaller nonprofits, however, are continuing to feel the financial pinch. Some have been forced to close their doors, while others are facing pressure to merge in order to survive.

Because of tax considerations and other issues, November and December are the most important financial months for many nonprofits. While every organization is unique, many charities receive 25-30 percent of their annual income during this tight timeframe. Given all these realities, givers need an extra serving of wisdom with their holiday feasting.

That's why third-party accrediting organizations are so important. Vetting by ECFA, the oldest and largest such agency in the Christian world, allows donors to give with confidence. Donors know that nonprofits with ECFA accreditation have independent boards of directors, avoid conflicts of interest and practice financial management with integrity, using all gifts as donors intend.

Beyond the seal earned by its members, ECFA provides a plethora of online resources for givers. ServantMatch, for example, lists specific giving opportunities so that donors can find ministries that work in areas important to them. Donors can search for ministries in categories such as missions/evangelism, rescue missions, education (K-12 and higher education), child sponsorship and more. Further, ServantMatch allows donors to find these ministries according to category, state, region, country and keyword.

For example, if you want to find an ECFA-accredited ministry that does disaster relief and development work, with water, in Texas, ServantMatch will give you not one but seven nonprofits to consider, along with short descriptions and contact information. There's nothing else quite like it.

Donors should make informed giving decisions. Knowing that an organization is accredited by ECFA provides sufficient confidence for some givers. Others may want to see information about financial matters and additional activities. Donors should evaluate the charity's response or lack of response in making wise giving decisions. Simply put, according to ECFA, "Know the organizations you support."

So we need plenty of wisdom in responding as the Lord leads during the annual flood of donor appeals. With needs so great and money so tight, every dollar we give must count. Thankfully, donors don't have to face this daunting task alone.