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For some people choosing a charity is easy. If a family member has breast cancer, they might support a hospital or join a run to raise funds for a cure. If someone they know attempted to die by suicide, they donate time or money to a mental health organization in their community.

For others, however, the choice can be daunting. With more than 86,000 registered charities in Canada to choose from, it’s no wonder. However, experts in the charitable sector say it need not be overwhelming if you narrow your search to something you are truly passionate about.

“Start thinking of yourself as a philanthropist and ask yourself, ‘What is my cause for life?’” Massachusetts-based author Dan Pallotta says. “What makes me laugh? What makes me cry? What makes me angry? What inspires me?

What drives donors to give their time or money to charities

“Get it down to a short list and then start doing your homework,” says Pallotta, who has written five books on philanthropy, including his most recent, The Everyday Philanthropist: A Better Way to Make a Better World. “Prospective donors should research a charity like they research the purchase of a new car, or a political candidate. Dig around, dig some more, and ask lots of questions.”

Paul Alofs, former president of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation in Toronto, says the place to start is with your own personal network of friends and family. “Ask who they donate to. Find out where they have received the most satisfaction and which charities have the most impact.”

Then, Alofs advises, go check out the charities’ websites. “Goals should be clearly stated and impact studies or testimonials should be front and centre. If they are not, that’s a red flag,” he says.

There are also online tools that offer checks and balances for potential donors to use as a general yardstick. Organizations such as Charity Intelligence Canada provide valuable insight into the inner workings of charities – and rate them – so you can better discern the “do-gooders” from the “good-doers” (the difference between charities that look good versus the ones actually do good).

On the question of whether it’s better to donate time or money, Pallotta does not mince words: “Time is great. Money is better. Money is far more fungible than donated time.” In other words, volunteering is appreciated and valued, especially by local non-profits, but dollars – even small amounts – typically go further to help an organization reach its stated goals.

Bruce MacDonald, president and chief executive of the charity Imagine Canada, says the We Charity scandal hurt his sector and rattled donors’ confidence. However, he adds, a silver lining is that a recent survey from the Angus Reid Institute found 60 per cent of Canadians report they will do more homework to determine if a charity is financially healthy.

MacDonald advocates talking to people who work at the charities; the development departments are a good place to start. Ask for a tour of the organization, discuss experiences with other donors, and ask what metrics the charity uses to measure the progress it is making toward reaching its goals.

“Questions about financial expenditures are totally fair,” he says. “Good charities, with nothing to hide, welcome good questions.”

One final bit of advice from Pallotta, which goes against what most prospective donors have been taught, is don’t fixate on an organization’s overhead costs and what the CEO gets paid. “It is the worst indicator to measure a charity you are going to choose,” he says.

“Overhead tells you nothing about the good a charity does. It just scratches the surface. If you think of a charity like a professional baseball team, you want the best pitcher money can buy in order to have a shot at winning the World Series.

“If you want your charity to win, you want to hire the absolute best talent to be able to compete with all the for-profits out there.”

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