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'Tis always the season, even if it's not the holidays, to support worthy causes. With just a few clicks of the mouse, you can dig up information about important charities and nonprofit groups, uncover volunteering opportunities in your community, send cash directly to the cause closest to your heart, and even find a way to make your gift shopping charitable.
Check out these sites that can help you make a World Wide Web of difference.
The Internet can help you evaluate charities you're interested in, to find out where your time and money will be best spent. Surf these sites to read up on the mission and money/volunteer needs of different nonprofits, the first step on your way to riding the wave of philanthropy.
Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance The site for the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance is a good launchpad to begin your charitable surfing. Get the scoop on hundreds of nonprofits, including how long they've been around and how their budget is allocated. (As a rule of thumb, look for groups that spend at least 50 percent of their annual funds on their hands-on programs and activities and less than 35 percent on fund-raising costs.)
Charitywave.com This site offers a safe way to donate online, whether once in a while or regularly. Whether your giving taste runs to art or health, the environment or social issues, the list of charities on this site includes both large and small groups and ranges from the Alaska Native Health Board to a public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C.
Charities are getting more and more cyber-savvy, building Web sites in the hopes of expanding the scope of their fund-raising efforts. Gone are the days when you had to whip out your checkbook, lick an envelope, and hunt for stamps before sending off your donations. Many nonprofit sites feature secure servers, meaning you can safely make credit card donations online.
Network for Good One of the best, most comprehensive charity sites around, Network for Good features a speedy search engine that lets you find worthy groups in your field of interest and the vicinity of your hometown; for example, type in the keyword "blind" and "San Francisco" and browse a list of six San Francisco-based groups that assist the blind. You can make secure credit card donations to hundreds of member groups, as well as find volunteering opportunities in your neighborhood by punching in your zip code. (In New York, for instance, they're looking for people to take terminally ill kids to the circus and staff a table at a walk against domestic violence.)
America's Charities America's Charities, a coalition of groups that work on a variety of issues from runaway kids to struggling farmers, allows you to earmark your online donation for a specific nonprofit and receive updates on how your money is being used. You'll see snappy descriptions of each group's work and links to their Web site for more information.
World Vision This innovative group maintains a catalog of donations-as-gifts that you can give to recipients around the world, either in your own name or as a present for a conscientious loved one (the organization will send a holiday card telling that person about your joint good deed). A $20 donation buys an immunization for a child in India, while $35 purchases a winter coat for a needy kid here in the U.S.
Toys for Tots Your online donation here will help buy toys for needy kids this holiday season, through a program sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps (who said tough guys didn't have soft hearts?).
Thanks to a wonderful Internet innovation called the online charity shopping mall, you can shop, shop, shop -- without feeling guilt. Every time you shell out dough for a loved one's gift (or a treat for yourself) at one of these sites, a portion of what you spend goes to charity.
Shopgoodwill.com At Shopgoodwill.com, you bid on collectibles, books, records, and other hard-to-find, history-filled icons, much like eBay -- and the price you pay for a purchase goes directly to a worthy nonprofit.
Greatergood.com With a stable of more than 100 retailers, including Eddie Bauer, Toys R Us, and 800-FLOWERS, this mall is a boon for shoppers with a heart of gold. Up to 15 percent of your bill is donated to a charity of your choice, including the Humane Society, Special Olympics, and a variety of scholarship funds. (Bonus feature: If your favorite organization isn't registered with the site, simply submit its name along with your receipts to have your purchase's charity donation sent there.)
The Web is chock-full of volunteer match sites, online guides that list opportunities to give your time and to make a difference in your community. These sites are a windfall for small groups that are in need of man and womanpower but can't afford a newspaper ad or other traditional publicity.
Serviceleader.org Prepare yourself for volunteering by reading one of the easy-to-digest articles, including organizing volunteer outings for the entire family and "Finding the Right Opportunity for You," a list of questions to ask yourself before you get involved.
Volunteermatch.org This user-friendly site allows you to search for volunteering opportunities by zip code or city; log in to Minneapolis, for instance, and 100 different postings come up, including a call for a puppeteer to perform shows that enlighten kids to issues like abuse and sensitivity to disabilities. The "Find an Opportunity" button lets you narrow your search even further -- select the type of nonprofit you want to work with (homeless help, literacy training, etc.), the distance you're willing to travel, and whether you seek a one-shot opportunity or an ongoing assignment.
Nonprofit Career Network Slightly less interactive than other sites, Nonprofit Career Network's Volunteer area offers a straight-up list of dozens of groups, including interesting community-based organizations like the Siberian Husky Rescue of Florida and the Los Angeles Shanti, an AIDS-related charity. All listings include phone numbers.
GuideStar This site lists more than 850,000 non-profit organizations that may need your help, searchable by keyword or location.
Volunteers of America Volunteers of America's site has a location search so you can get in touch with the group's branch near you to find out about youth mentoring opportunities, homebound person visits, and similar endeavors. The organization's Retired and Senior Volunteers Program helps people over 55 and causes in their communities.
Idealist.org Look for volunteer opportunities by state or area of interest at the Volunteer Opportunities area. Tip: Don't narrow your search too much (specifying that you want a Spanish-speaking gig, say) because you'll cut out some of the interesting grassroots assignments listed here (like an Ohio program that trains volunteers to make videos about topics that matter for a cable TV station).
Nonprofits are nothing if not realistic -- they know that many people are too harried with work and family duties to commit major time and energy to big causes. That's why they've found ways you can help them from the comfort of your own computer. Check out the following for some cyber-volunteering opportunities, a perfect way for time-crunched folks to perform good deeds without leaving their desks.
Volunteermatch.org In the Remote Volunteering area, you can browse dozens of postings for charities that will welcome a few hours of your time. Examples of volunteer assignments range from writing grant proposals for a local Special Olympics committee to translating letters that an international not-for-profit receives.
The Hunger Site At this site, your clicks help feed the hungry. From here you can also click on the Breast Cancer Site, the Child Health Site, the Rainforest Site, and the Animal Rescue Site.