Cool Charities You Should Check Out!

The holiday season is a great time to just love your life. For us Americans, it starts with Thanksgiving, a day where we express our gratitude and meditate on the things we are thankful for in our lives. And as a bonus, calories and diets don't count. We then may go into the dark weeks of final exams or general trying-to-get-crap-at-work-in-order-before-the-end-of-the-year time, and then it's Christmas or Hannukah or Diwali or whatever winter observance you enjoy. I know most of us sort of ride the tide of Christmas specials on TV and the "spirit of the season" (even if it's not the holy season for you in particular) and just have a ton of fun taking it easy, partying out the year and into the new one.

But during these times of joy, it's really important to consider that however fortunate we are, there are those struggling. Being grateful is good for the soul, mind, and body, and one great way to take it a step further is to pay it forward by working to perpetuate good. That's why it's a great time to give to charities and other non-profit organizations to give back to the community. In the spirit of giving, I've put together a list of some great charities I love, and also given you a little info on some charities whose missions you might want to reconsider. Remember that even if you can't make a financial donation, you can still help by donating your time, items needed for a project (like canned food or books), and/or publicizing a great organization both as a resource for others and a great place to lend support.

Cool organizations you should check out!

GirlUp. The United Nations' initiative to empower girls through education and support to break cycles of poverty, disease, and oppression. Helping girls is the most sustainable and impactful way to aid a developing nation. When women get educated and work, they are less likely to be married off as children, they are better able to support themselves, their families, and their communities, they can even start businesses and create jobs. But more importantly, girls deserve their fair shot.
Similar: Girl Rising, She's The First The idea: make the world suck less. DoSomething organizes a ton of projects that anyone--even you!-- can get involved with, from encouraging kids to get out and play (which is sneaky exercise and learning), to collecting clothes for homeless teens, to keeping thousands of cans out of landfills. DoSomething is youth-oriented in it's approaches because the idea is that everyone can do something to make the world better!
Cool campaigns: Cellphones for Survivors (of domestic violence), Ryan's Playbooks (activity books for kids in hospitals)
Similar: Harry Potter Alliance (turns fans into heroes by creating a creative and collaborative culture for positive change!)

St. Jude's Children's Hospital. This is a research hospital that works to find cures for cancer with a huge emphasis on saving the lives of children. Even more awesome? No child is ever denied treatment based on race, religion, or the family's ability to pay. Considering that medical care in the US is often not affordable, that's a big deal.
Similar: American Cancer Society, American Childhood Cancer Organization

Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood works to give all women access to safe, sane, medically-sound care. Their goal is to increase sexual education and access to care so that people can live lives on their terms. They provide everything from education, to contraceptives, and yes, abortions. They also work hard to lobby for reproductive rights so that women can make their own choices about their bodies (and you know, not die because of overly restrictive laws).
Just want to help with sex ed? Scarleteen is a great resource for facts about sex, sexuality, and relationships that isn't shame-y or lecture-y, and is put into plain language that teens can actually understand. (Since the donate link is hard to find, you can just click here)

Doctors Without Borders. Putting medical professionals in parts of the world where there simply aren't enough of them.
Domestically: Some people in the US get caught in terrible financial situations due to short-term emergencies that create major financial struggles due to late fees, short-term inability to work etc. Modest Needs allows you to help out someone in dire need of financial help just until they can get back on their feet-- just like you might for a cousin who got in a car accident and needs it fixed so they can get to work! You pick the person you donate to and everything.

First Book. Literacy is a critical tool for success and those who don't grasp reading as early or as quickly as their peers are put at a huge disadvantage. Kids who grow up in low-income neighborhoods may find as little as 1 book per 300 kids. Ouch. First Book gets books to kids who need more books-- because access to books is the greatest hurdle of illiteracy.
Also: We Need Diverse Books. Because we need children's books that reflect diverse experiences and identities.

It's hard to always know where money is going when you hand it off to another organization. Usually you kind of give them a level of trust because you believe in their mission and that's that. It's also hard because a lot of these organizations do help people-- but maybe not enough as they should, or with questionable methods-- and you hear nice stories and think 'yes!'

But it's important to try to find ways to help your dollar do the most good. I encourage you to always do some basic homework before you donate to someone, google for any potential controversies, and also check to see if the criticisms still hold water. Sometimes from controversy and criticism comes great change and it's important to recognize that (ex. TOMS business model improved for the better a lot after people criticized it, and despite the fact that I still think their shoes are uncomfortable, at least I know they are following through with their mission in a decent way). Still, you should always check to make sure you know what you're supporting.

Charities you might want to rethink:

Autism Speaks. This organization is the big name in autism, but its goals and its spending might not align with what you think their mission is. They treat autistic children as a burden on families first and foremost. In this fundraising video they did, one of their execs straight up talks about how she fantasizes about driving her and her autistic child off a bridge-- but of course, she can't because her not-autistic child needs her. Only 4% of funds raised by Autism Speaks goes back towards helping autistic people and their families (meanwhile in 2012 the president of AS had a salary of $436k+). There are a lot of great organizations that do good work promoting autism research, helping those on the spectrum receive proper care and supportive environments, and helping empower autistic individuals to lead full, exciting, productive lives. For more info, check out this great letter from other autism empowerment and support organizations to those who support autism first.
Cool alternatives? The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, Autism Society

Salvation Army. You guys probably have already heard not to put money into those big red buckets, but in case you haven't (or just like having your decisions backed up) here are some reasons you might not want to donate to them: They back anti-gay politicians all over the world with their money, they straight up don't pay women whose husbands also work for them, they threatened to close all their soup kitchens in NY when the city put in new legislation that would force the Salvation Army to adhere to civil rights laws, and they let a transwoman die in the cold, sleeping outside one of their shelters because they refused to serve a transperson. So, yeah they do some pretty not cool stuff.
Cool alternatives? Feeding America, National Coalition for the Homeless

Human Rights Campaign. As someone who tries to stay educated on social justice issues, I was so about the human rights campaign for years-- not because I'd done a ton of research on them, but because they seemed to be a big figure in the marriage equality movement, etc. So it turns out, they don't really care about helping transpeople. Which is so not cool. They tout a sort of "we'll come back for you" politics, which is basically saying "I know you need more help, but we're like, closer already and we'll come back for you later which is like, I don't know, but it's after we get all our stuff first." Martin Luther King Jr. articulated in his brilliant Letter from Birmingham Jail (which everyone should read, btw) his disappointment with the kind of person "who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
It Gets Better. This campaign is such a good idea with such a great message. But the guy who originated it is transphobic, anti-bisexual, anti-asexual, sizeist, racist, and classist. Basically, he wants you to know "it gets better" if you're a cute, thin, white, able-bodied, gay person-- and that's kind of the opposite of what the spirit of "it gets better" means for most people. He's also outright bullied people. I encourage everyone to spread the word that it gets better-- but not just for the "right kind" of kid that Dan Savage seems to only care about. Get out the true message of acceptance, diversity, and empowerment, but don't buy Dan Savage's books, merch, or donate to him-- the movement itself is grassroots enough that you can still spread the message without giving Savage a dime.
Cool alternatives? the American Civil Liberties Union (although they cover a great deal more than just LGBTQIA issues, so you should make sure you align with all their goals), GLAD (LGBT Legal Defenders), GLAAD (media watchdogs who work for positive representations of LGBT+  people), Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (who work to make schools safe spaces for kids of all gender/sexual identities), The Trevor Project (a suicide prevention and intervention organization for LGBT youth)

In addition to the organizations I've listed, it's also important to look into local groups working to improve your communities. Local organizations have a better grasp on your individual community's needs and can work more closely with local leaders to enact change. It also helps keep money within your community, which could be a bonus for your local economy. Local groups typically don't have as many resources as large national groups do, and they also have a harder time pulling in funds. You might find that local organizations need your dollar or your volunteer efforts the most.

Some ideas of local places you might consider:

  • homeless shelters
  • no-kill animal shelters
  • free clinics
  • food banks
  • low-income housing projects
  • soup kitchens
  • libraries
  • shelters for victims of domestic abuse
Hope this makes it a little easier to feel the spirit of giving this season. I'd love to hear about your favorite charities and causes! Happy holidays, everyone, and Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it! 


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