South Asia and Giving Back: Your Guide to Getting Started

2209292_8d1dbceb85_zby Sharmila Rao Thakkar, @sharmilart

How do you know where and how to give best when donating back to South Asia?

It’s that time of year when many individuals and families are making their year-end contributions and perhaps starting to plan where they will focus their giving in the coming year.

How many times have you written a check because a friend asked, or given at the check-out counter when asked, or dropped some change into collection box or responded to an appeal letter from a nonprofit.  In some cases we give because someone has asked, and that is enough.  In others, we give because we have a self-identified interest in a cause or passion for an issue.

But, how do you know if your contributions are being directed appropriately as you intended?

And how do you know if the dollars are being put to good use and making a difference?

Here in the United States, we have multiple ways to check on our donations and the impact our dollars are making, including reviewing financials and federally-verified information and even going to visit the organization and meeting staff and those benefitting from the support.  We have a process by which the Internal Revenue Service verifies the nonprofit status of organizations and continues to monitor their work and reports on this. There are several organizations through which donors and patrons can conduct research on their interests and organizations and attempt to make sound-funding decisions, for example: Guidestar, Charity Navigator, Givewell and Great Nonprofits.

But, what if you want to direct your dollars abroad, to organizations based in South Asia? According to a 2011 Give2Asia report “Enabling Indian Diaspora Philanthropy” Indian non-governmental organizations received almost $740 million from private donors in the United States!

Here are some key things to keep in mind when it comes to donating (anywhere):

  1. Align your values with your donations: What do you care about and why?  Are there particular issues or challenges that you would like to help address?  Look for organizations that are working on those, with missions that match your own.
  2. Conduct your own due diligence so that you can make an informed decision: That means review the organizational materials including annual reports, financials (is there a deficit, how much cash do they have on hand), origin history, leadership quality, staff capacity, current programs as well as future plans. Do you trust that the organization can carry out its work?  What’s its track record? Are you satisfied with the results they report?
  3. Have open and honest communication with the organizations: Confirm how and how often they will provide updates and ask for the information you are seeking.  If they don’t know or can’t deliver, try to understand why before discounting the work and use of your support

Here are some key things to keep in mind when donating abroad:

  1. Is there a cause or population you care deeply about?
  2. Is there a specific location (South Asian country, city or village) that is close to your heart?
  3. Is there a particular organization you would like to support?
  4. How do you identify which of the plentiful organizations working on the ground so far away are qualified, competent and well-performing?
  5. How do you guarantee your dollars are well-spent?

In recent years, several searchable databases and trusted intermediaries have evolved to help provide guidance and carry out credible giving to South Asian efforts on behalf of donors. You can enter criteria on their sites and review the options.  Currently, the preferred ways to give to organizations based abroad include:

– Giving through an intermediary – a locally-based foundation for example.
– Giving to a locally-based organization incorporated here with nonprofit status that may raise funds from US-based donors and is doing work abroad on a specific issue (child welfare, literacy, women/girls, education, environment) such as,  America India Foundation, Pratham USA, Akshaya Patra, Share and Care, Child Relief and You, Save a Mother.
– Giving directly to an organization doing the work on the ground through another source.
– Giving directly to an organization, such as a university or larger non-governmental organization (NGO), that is set up to accept foreign contributions, though that may mean not being able to claim a tax deduction here in the US.

Helpful Databases:

GuideStar India (part of GuideStar International) was launched in 2010 to help donors and  others such as foundations, corporations, and students connect with local non-governmental organizations that have been vetted and access the information needed to help them make their funding and engagement decisions. As India’s largest, free, searchable database of reliable and comparable information on more than 4,200 non-governmental organizations by issue area and location, GuideStar India also houses offline information on another 70,000 NGOs and other due diligence tools.

India Giving Network:
The US-based Silicon Valley Community Foundation has partnered with India Giving Network, a project of Guidestar, that provides due-diligence resources for donors and allows individuals here to fund organizations and issues abroad in an easy, transparent and efficient way via an online giving portal.

GiveIndia is another donation platform that allows individuals here to support a cause of their choice from about 200 NGOs that have been vetted for transparency & credibility according to certain criteria.  Donations are tax-exempt as they are made via the GIVE Foundation, a registered nonprofit in the US.

GlobalGiving is a charity fundraising website that gives social entrepreneurs and non-profits from anywhere in the world a chance to raise the money that they need to improve their communities. Donors can make a tax-deductible contribution to projects of their choice in countries including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and will receive email updates from the project to see how their gift is making a difference.

Through Give2Asia, donors can similarly select projects that have been found to be effective and led by grant recipients who are accountable. Activities are monitored and needs of those benefitting as well as donors are addressed.

Regardless of the route you choose in making your investments in a cause further from home,  understand your values and take the time to identify causes and organizations that align with your personal philanthropic mission, know that you have a right to know how your monies are being spent, be patient and then feel confident that you’ve done good.

May these tips serve as a guide as you begin or deepen your philanthropic journey abroad.

Sharmila Rao Thakkar directs grantmaking and operations of a Chicago-based family foundation and also serves as a director of the nonprofit online resource South Asian Philanthropy Project. She has been working and volunteering in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector for about the past 20 years. From her early days as a grade school hospital candy-striper to tutoring children as a teenager and now mentoring young professionals, she has a keen passion for building community, leadership development and resourcing folks to help all access a better quality of life and peaceful balance while pursuing dreams and innovative ideas to create something positive for our future generations.

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