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Gary A. Officer

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Home for the Holidays

Posted: 12/22/11 10:53 AM ET

As the leader of a national nonprofit organization, I often think about the importance of individual giving to charitable causes. It is an exceptional and admirable characteristic of American culture, and these organizations depend on the generosity of people in order to achieve their work.

According to a report by Giving USA, $290.89 billion of total charitable giving was recorded for the 2010 year. $211.77 billion of that, or 73 percent came from individual donations. This report authenticates not only the generosity of the American individual, but the great responsibility they carry to help organizations and nonprofits sustain and grow their operations.

The holiday season is perhaps when people feel the most accountable to the act of "giving." On every street corner, the ringing bell reminds pedestrians to give to the less fortunate. At the checkout counter, holiday shoppers are asked to donate to a worthy cause. On many Christmas lists, people ask for a gift to their charity of choice in lieu of presents.

My question for the prospective donor is: how do you choose the right cause? In a nonprofit environment saturated with options, I urge everyone to perform their due diligence, and ensure their generous donation is maximizing its effectiveness, especially in a time of great societal need.

There are a couple key characteristics I suggest an organization possess, while one considers making a donation this holiday season:

1. Transparency: Make sure that you are giving to an organization that makes its records available to you. Transparency is a critical asset to ensure your generosity is being utilized for the correct purposes. Organizations bear an obligation to publish critical data.

2. Efficiency: Every organization asking for funds should have a proven history of competency in their cause and direct impact when using donations. The organization is accountable to the donor, to prove a level of professionalism via all aspects of the organization.

3. Relevancy: Is the organization representing a worthy cause? Although subject to personal opinion, it is important to consider what the organization embodies. With so many needs across our community, I urge donors to research and choose an organization which will make a measurable impact on the clients or purpose they serve.

Rebuilding Together is one such organization that fulfills the requirements above. For seven consecutive years, we have been rated as a four-star charity by Charity Navigator, for our outstanding financial stewardship and transparent organizational operations. Our obligation is not only to our mission, but also to those in support of our mission.

A majority of every dollar donated to Rebuilding Together is used for direct program expenses, helping rebuild a home for a low-income family, veteran, elderly neighbor or a community. Our responsible and efficient use of the donors' dollar is of the utmost importance. It separates us from many of our peers, and highlights our ability to maximize each and every donation, in order to focus on what matters most: the people we serve.

Rebuilding Together's core business as a safe and healthy housing organization, is perhaps, more relevant than ever. According to a recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the D.C. government cut $20 million from housing programs in the past year. This development provides us with a snapshot to the larger, national issue: funding for housing and related discretionary programs will experience further cuts in order to balance our growing national deficit.

The holidays denote family gatherings, crowded dining tables, and a roof under which to celebrate such festivities. However for many low-income Americans, the most vulnerable of our population, this is not the reality.

What is their reality? Homelessness, shelters, or a crumbling house. Affordable, clean and decent housing has become a rarity for many struggling families. The U.S. Census reports that a record number of Americans -- nearly 1 in 2 -- have fallen into poverty or their minimal earnings classify them as low-income. In a time of government cutbacks, we can hardly afford not to help families remain in their homes. Indeed, until our economy shows signs of a real turnaround, the hardship that we are observing may become the permanent reality for millions of families.

In our own ways, Rebuilding Together and many other nonprofit organizations are working diligently across thousands of communities to serve the needs of those that have suffered the most in these challenging times. For us, helping our most vulnerable homeowners, allowing them to stay in their home and invest back into their community, is both a challenge and an obligation that we fully embrace.

This holiday, let's reinvest in communities and help our fellow neighbors. Whether you donate locally or nationally through your dollars or your time, you can make a difference. To learn more about Rebuilding Together, visit www.RebuildingTogether.org and learn how you can become part of the solution to a national problem.

Let's bring our families home for the holidays.