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Thinking Outside The Wallet

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Words matter.

During the holiday season, as you think about donating to your favorite charities, consider "thinking outside the wallet" as well. That's the message and motivating idea behind GreatNonProfits.org -- a wonderful web platform that makes it easy for people to write and read reviews about great charitable organizations.

The idea is simple, but can have huge impact. It's a way for people who've been touched by a nonprofit to make a different kind of contribution by sharing their story about it -- and that helps in two important ways.

Most people want to know if their giving is going to make a difference. Don't you? First hand accounts make for powerful testimony. Real reviews by real people give prospective donors and volunteers additional insight. Just like they help millions of consumers on Amazon, or when we're researching restaurants, doctors, etc.

The benefits flow the other way too. User-generated reviews give nonprofits a highly effective (and free) form of advertising. They help the organizations recruit new volunteers, deepen connections with their constituents, and raise money.

Another cool thing about GreatNonProfits is they host reviews about organizations of all shapes and sizes, from the largest on the national stage, to the smallest grassroots groups in local communities. For the latter, this is especially helpful, as there usually isn't a lot of media coverage for local nonprofits, unless it's to report on a scandal.

Of course, nonprofits still need all the money they can get. A recent Harris Interactive poll shows that many Americans have stopped donating to charities, or reduced their donations, because of the tough economic times. Which makes the gift of a review a timely alternative for those who can't afford to donate (and an additional way to contribute by those who can).

The driving force behind GreatNonProfits is Perla Ni, a 2009 HuffPost "Top Game Changer." Prior to forming GNP, Perla was the publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the leading journal on nonprofit management and philanthropy. Before that, she was the co-founder and editor of Grassroots.com, a nonprofit advocacy site named by Forbes as "Best of the Web."

I interviewed Perla to find out what inspired her to launch GreatNonProfits. She tells the story of how her family had only $100 when they immigrated to the United States from China many years ago -- and how countless nonprofits helped them. "If you look at photos of me when I was a kid, practically everything I wore came second hand from nonprofits. My cavities got filled for free at a nonprofit community dental clinic. So I know how much the help of a nonprofit can mean."

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Perla and colleagues at SSIR started looking into how well nonprofits were doing on the ground in and around New Orleans. They had access to far more information than the ordinary donor or volunteer, but still found it difficult to learn which nonprofits were really doing a good job of helping those most in need.

It struck her how valuable it would be if there were an online "Zagat" for nonprofits that would collect stories and reviews by people who've experienced their impact up close and personally.

And so in 2007, she founded GreatNonProfits -- a website where you can find every nonprofit you've ever heard of and a million you haven't.

So whether you're making donations or not this year, think about how else you can help those who help others. Write a review. Recommend a nonprofit you trust. Give back from the heart. Not only to help your favorite charity, but because there's something else quite valuable in doing so.

It helps us reflect on how much we, as a culture, have allowed the value of who we are, and what we do, to be defined by a dollar sign. It's our principal measure of success, status, power, influence, meaning. It drives us to identify more as consumers than ctizens, more as perpetual money machines than active participants in a community of common interest. We long for a life of meaning, but use monetary shortcuts that short circuit more personal acts of meaning.

So consider writing a review not only as part of your personal philanthropy, but as part of your ongoing civic journey. The one we all need to make on the long road back from cash and carry to the more meaningful and valuable function of being a compassionate neighbor and contributing citizen.

Food for thought as we set the table and give thanks on Thursday for all good things in life. And as we contemplate the fact that far too many tables in America would be bare, far too many desperate hopes dashed, if it weren't for the selfless work of great nonprofits.

So head over to GNP's website to learn about some new groups you might like to support. And if you have direct experience with a charitable organization, by all means share that knowledge so other people can learn about and support those who are truly making a difference in people's lives.