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Navigating the Non-Profitsphere

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With over 1.5 million non-profits registered in the US, it can be dizzying to sort through the wristbands and marathons to find a charitable cause which to give your money or time. Daily we are bombarded with Facebook Causes and infomercial messages that muddle our mind, reminding us of the disparities, injustices, and hardships that exist.

According to a Gallup poll, Americans are more likely to donate their money than time to charities. Sixty-four percent of Americans say they have volunteered their time in 2008, while 75% have donated cash. The internet has made it vastly easier to make quick donations, while volunteering still tends to be time-intensive.

So where does your gift have the most impact? How do you find that group of people working to fix that issue you most care about? Here are some great tools for navigating the non-profitsphere:

Find the organization

Perhaps you care about childrens' access to healthy food, but don't know which grassroots organizations are working towards improving school lunches. Try Google Email Alerts, include keywords like "school lunches" and "nutrition" and Google will send you an email digest of headlines from weekly news stories containing those keywords. Want to make it local? Just add the city or state to the keywords. Not only does this help you stay on top of issues you care about, but you can learn about the groups and people who are making a difference in this space.

If you prefer to casually explore opportunities, Change.org connects volunteers and donors to nonprofits by first engaging them in a cause they care about, then providing them with relevant organization. Founder and Executive Director Ben Rattray explains, "We've found this a more effective way of connecting people to organizations than providing a long list of nonprofits relevant to an interest area, since most people are motivated by the desire to do something concrete and can't do as much with a list as they can with specific opportunities to make an impact."

Dig a little deeper

While an organization's website may be a fine source for the mission statement and contact information, many non-profits lack the capacity to build comprehensive, up-to-date sites. Conversely, a fancy website for a homeless shelter could indicate misdirection in use of funds.

To ensure that an organization's priorities, programs and spending trends align with your standards, look at the quantitative overview. Would you be appalled if you found out the Executive Director makes over $300,000 a year? Or would you consider this money well spent to keep things running smoothly? Guidestar.org is the gatekeeper of information and financials on non-profits in the US, making financial information more transparent to the public.

However, numbers do not illustrate the whole picture. For the past year and a half I have been working with the team at GreatNonprofits.org to build the Zagats (or Yelp) for non-profits. This easy tool provides user-generated ratings and reviews from real volunteers, clients, and donors. While these reviews tend to be positive accounts, they add a much needed human element to evaluating the impact of an organization.

If time is on your side

With unemployment at a record high, there should be a measurable increase in volunteerism. Not only are people looking to keep busy and learn new skills, but they're also looking for a deeper sense of meaning and contribution to the world. Plus, working hands-on in the solution can be fun and rewarding.

If you prefer to dedicate time to a cause, check out OneBrick.org- a calendar of one-off volunteer opportunities in big cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. If you want to volunteer regularly in an internship-type role, Idealist.org is the resource for longer-term volunteer positions.

Someone once told me that people are either rich in time or money. Decide what you can offer and provide it in a meaningful way to a worthy organization. There are 1.5 million non-profits waiting for you.