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Microgiving: Your Guide to Websites

Match up your cause and your budget to make a difference

More and more websites make it easy for you to spread your wealth around a little bit — or, more accurately, in little bits. Online microgiving — or microphilanthropy — is powerful, efficient and popular because, at very low cost, it connects contributors and their social networks with causes. Many charities like the "micro" approach, too, figuring that it's better to raise lots of small contributions from a large number of people instead of a few large contributions from a handful of donors.

See also: AARP Foundation Gift Planning.

If you think microphilanthropy might be for you, here are more than a dozen organizations that can help you get started. They're all nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations classified as public charities by the Internal Revenue Service, and thus contributions to them should generally be tax-deductible. (We haven't included similar sites operated by for-profit companies, such as Crowdrise, launched in 2010 by actor Edward Norton and three partners, and Visa Giving Gateway, an online-giving portal for Visa cardholders.)

Each entry includes fees that you might be charged or deductions from your donation that the organization discloses as administrative, processing or "fulfillment" costs. For tips on how to evaluate an organization, read Small Is Beautiful.

All-Purpose Sites

Each of these sites can connect you to a variety of causes.

Changing the Present. Think of this website as a huge online catalog of suggested "gifts that change the world" — a $120 contribution, for example, to buy a dairy goat for a family in a Third World country. The site partners with hundreds of different charitable organizations, and you can put as many gifts as you want in an online shopping cart. You can even create gift registries and wish lists, allowing others to make contributions in your name.

Deductions: Recipient charities are charged "a standard credit card transaction fee" of 3 percent plus 30 cents.

Citizen Effect. Citizen Effect marshals an army of "citizen philanthropists" who tap people in their social network to contribute to their cause of choice — whether it's building a community water tank in a village in India or providing medical services for refugees in Zambia. There's a questionnaire-based tool to help you find "your perfect project," and donors get periodic reports on the impact their projects are having on the ground.

Deductions: 3 percent for credit-card processing

GlobalGiving. Formed in 2002 by Mari Kuraishi and Dennis Whittle, both veterans of World Bank anti-poverty initiatives, Global Giving connects individual donors with charity projects around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. It's raised more than $186,000 from more than 4,000 donors, for example, to support the amazing work of "HeroRATs." In Mozambique, 38 of the trained rats and their human handlers have been clearing old landmines from war-scarred farms and fields. In Tanzania, they've been sniffing out deadly pulmonary tuberculosis faster and more accurately than traditional laboratory microscopy.

Deductions: 15 percent for administrative costs, including credit-card processing fees.

Jolkona. Jolkona means "drop of water" in Bengali. When it comes to charitable giving, "every drop counts," says Adnan Mahmud, a Microsoft Corp. program manager who founded the microphilanthropy with his wife, Nadia Khawaja. "People want to know that their small donations count," Mahmud says. The Jolkona Foundation's projects have ranged from supplying Kenyan schools with locally produced ceramic water filters to providing prosthetic limbs for Burmese land-mine victims.

Deductions: None. (The organization's operating costs are covered by a separate fund that's supported by private and corporate donors.)

JustGive. JustGive calls itself a "one-stop destination" for online charitable giving. It provides basic information about nearly 1.8 million charities through its partnership with the GuideStar nonprofit information service, and offers more detailed information on 1,000 charities that it says have met "stringent public requirements." You can use the site to make donations to as few or many charities as you choose, with a $10 minimum.

Deductions: 4.5 percent for processing costs.

Network for Good. Founded in 2001 by three of the nation's biggest technology companies (AOL, Cisco and Yahoo!) in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy to help facilitate donations to the American Red Cross, Network for Good bills itself as a way "to give to any charity, anywhere, anytime online." Over the years it's channeled more than $500 million in online donations to upwards of 60,000 nonprofit organizations. In partnership with actor Kevin Bacon, it's also behind ("social networking with a social conscience"), a charitable initiative that's raised millions of dollars with the help of Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Duvall, Colin Firth, Ricky Gervais, Joaquim Phoenix and other celebrity philanthropists. Network for Good's site also allows users to search from among more than 40,000 volunteer opportunities.

Add-ons: 5 percent for administrative costs.

Next: More microgiving websites. >>

SeeYourImpact. Cofounded by Microsoft alumni Scott Oki and Digvijay Chauhana, SeeYourImpact connects donors with causes in a more intimate way than similar charities by using camera-equipped mobile phones in the field to capture photos and videos that show contributions at work. Earmark a contribution for, say, the Blind People's Association in Ahmedabad, India, (one of SeeYourImpact's partner organizations around the world) and in a few days you'll see a blind student there learning math with a Braille abacus that your contribution helped to buy.

Deductions: None. (The organization's operating costs are covered by donors who choose to give extra amounts for that purpose.)

UniversalGiving. Founded in 2002 by Pamela Hawley (who previously co-founded VolunteerMatch), UniversalGiving describes itself as a website "that helps people give and volunteer with the top-performing projects all over the world." The organization says that it thoroughly vets all of the recipient organizations with "a unique quality model."

Deduction: None for donations made by check; a "small processing fee" for donations made by credit card or electronic check.

Specific-Purpose Sites

Each of these sites focuses on a specific cause.

DonorsChoose. Charles Best was teaching social studies at a public high school in the Bronx when he came up with the idea for an online charity that connects generous souls directly to "classrooms in need" all across America. On the site you can peruse thousands of requests posted by public-school teachers — from pens and pencils to musical instruments and microscope slides — and contribute as little as $1 to a project you choose. After the fundraising goal is met and DonorsChoose delivers the materials to the school, donors get photos of the project, a thank-you letter from the teacher and a report showing exactly how the money was spent. If you give more than $50, you'll also receive handwritten thank-you letters from the students.

Deductions: An 18 percent "fulfillment fee" is built into each project (to cover such costs as purchasing materials and sending them to schools), but donors can opt out of supporting those costs as they go through the checkout process.

USA Projects. It's always been next to impossible to make a tax-deductible gift to an individual artist. But a little more than a year ago, United States Artists — a nonprofit grant-making, artist-advocacy organization based in Los Angeles — launched USA Projects, the first online "microphilanthropy" initiative devoted solely to artists who live and work in the United States. Applicants in the performing, visual, media and literary arts billboard their projects online for would-be donors (the projects are prescreened by expert panels), and if they must meet their fundraising goals by the posted deadline to collect the pledges. As of June 2011, more than 200 artists had participated, with three out of four seeing their projects funded (average donation: $140).

Deductions: None. USA's operating expenses have been covered by $22 million in seed funding provided by four big foundations.

Givology. Launched in 2008 by students at the University of Pennsylvania, Givology describes itself as an "online giving marketplace for education that leverages small-dollar donations to support grass-roots projects and student scholarships in the developing world." You can, for example, help repair a west African school in the village of Solo, Mali, or help build a primitive kitchen in an earthquake-damaged school in Vallee de Jacmel, Haiti. Student and project updates are collected quarterly by the organization's partners in the field and then shared online with donors.

Deductions: Transaction fees ranging from 2 percent to 4 percent for credit-card processing and other costs.

Next: “Person-to-Person” Sites. >>

Person-to-Person Sites

These sites specialize in putting donors and beneficiaries in direct contact.

MicroGiving. John Ferber, an Internet entrepreneur, created the site in 2007 to cut through what he calls "the red tape of traditional charity organizations" and directly connect donors with recipients (both individuals and organizations), especially those struggling through such hardships as illness or loss of income. It's much like eBay connects buyers directly with sellers. MicroGiving says that all recipients have gone through "a strict verification process" and submitted documentation to establish that their need is legitimate.

Deductions: 10 percent of money raised plus 3 percent for credit-card processing; reduced to 5 percent for "financial hardship" cases.

Modest Needs. Keith Taylor founded this site in 2002 to help people handle expenses that they could not have anticipated or prepared for and financial emergencies that threaten to force them into "the cycle of poverty." Donors receive "Modest Needs Points" that they can allocate to applications for assistance; requests accrue points until fully funded. Modest Needs then sends money directly to creditors on the applicant's behalf.

Deductions: Fulfillment costs — expenses related to processing, vetting and funding applications — range from 15 percent to 25 percent.

SaveTogether. This one's all about the multiplier effect. You select a low-wage worker (screened in advance by SaveTogether) whose story and aspirations inspire you — whether the goal is to go to school, buy a home or start a business — and agree to help match what the person is able to put aside for that purpose. You can make a contribution as small as $1. Your contribution won't go directly to the individual but to a participating nonprofit organization that offers a matched savings program for low-wage workers. An individual in the program who manages to put away $500, for example, could see his or her nest egg, thanks to the matching funds, hit the $1,500 mark.

Deductions: None. (Donors are asked to make an extra contribution to help cover operating costs.) The distinctive feature of this online giving portal is its promise that "every cent of every donation will reach its intended beneficiary," with nothing deducted "to cover the administrative and operating costs of our organization." Founded in 2007 by a corporate lawyer named Frank Victor-McCawley and Brian Manning, a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, the organization is entirely a volunteer operation: "no one on our team," the website notes, "receives any form of compensation." It currently works with eight charitable affiliates in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Deductions: None.