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In tough economic times, lots of people hold on tighter to their money, cutting back on everything from lattes to charitable donations. But studies show that money can buy happiness—just not the way most people think.
In a study published this year in the journal Science, researchers asked Americans to rate their overall happiness and report how much they spend on expenses, gifts for themselves and others, and donations to charity. They found that spending on others boosts happiness, while spending on oneself doesn’t.
The researchers gave people envelopes containing small amounts of cash. They told some people to put the money toward expenses, others to buy a gift for themselves, and a third group to buy a gift for someone else or make a charitable donation. The third group reported the biggest gains in happiness.
Charities need help more this winter than they have in a long time. More people are showing up at food pantries and homeless shelters, including families that have never sought assistance before.
The financial picture for many area charities looks cloudy. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were the region’s two largest corporate philanthropists, together giving $40 million a year to local charities. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which took over Fannie and Freddie this fall, has said the two companies will continue to make charitable contributions, but it hasn’t said how much.
Without those funds, some charities will almost certainly have to cut services. “There’s really no one else who can make up the difference on that scale,” says Chuck Bean, executive director of the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington. Bean expects other donations to fall—first corporate giving, then foundations—while local governments also cut social services.
Many people wait until the end of the year to make donations; this season could be a make-or-break time for nonprofits.
“The question on everybody’s mind,” Bean says, “is what are individuals going to do?”
Where to Give?
Washington is home to more than 8,000 nonprofits, and choosing which ones to support isn’t easy. We consulted dozens of local philanthropy experts—including heads of foundations and corporate-giving coordinators—to come up with this list of charities. We also considered which groups have received awards for the impact they’ve had.
Nearly half of the nonprofits in Washington are national or international groups, and they do important work. But we focused on organizations that are based here and do all of their work here.
We heard good things about more than 300 charities, and narrowing it down was hard. We chose the groups that were recommended most often and most enthusiastically. We strove for geographic diversity, a mix of well-established groups and up-and-comers, and organizations that address a wide variety of needs. We gave preference to groups that do a good job managing both volunteers and donations.
We then arranged the list of recommended charities by the type of work they do—whether that’s helping children, the homeless, or the planet.
Of our charities that have been rated by Charity Navigator, the largest nonprofit watchdog, all have earned at least three out of four stars. The rest have been reviewed by expert grantmakers and have a stamp of approval from at least one of the following: the Catalogue for Philanthropy, the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, and the Meyer Foundation.
Using This Guide
With each charity, we’ve included a sampling of volunteer opportunities and examples of what your donation might accomplish. Most groups need volunteers for more functions than we had space to list. Many could use volunteer help for tech support, public relations, accounting, fundraising, administrative work, consulting, or help at special events. And every group will accept donations that are either bigger or smaller than the amounts we list.
Just because a charity’s not on our list doesn’t mean it’s not worthy; we had to leave out many good ones. For more suggestions on where to give, the Catalogue for Philanthropy (catalogueforphilanthropy-dc.org) is a great resource. You can also look at which organizations receive grants from foundations; they are vetted carefully. The Web site of the Meyer Foundation (meyerfoundation.org) is a good place to start. You can call the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region (202-955-5890; cfncr.org) to get input even if you’re not planning to contribute to one of its funds.
For more volunteer opportunities, consult Greater DC Cares (dc-cares.org) or VolunteerMatch (volunteermatch.org). Most city and county governments also have volunteer offices that can suggest good organizations near your home.
>>Want more ways to do good? Check out our full charity package.