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Policy and charity

As yesterday's lunch break hinted, I've been thinking a lot about charity lately. In particular, I want to donate more. But I don't really want to donate to traditional charities. The country needs food banks, of course, but a better system of food stamps would make a much bigger difference. And you could say the same for a host of other issues.

So what I want are politically effective charities. Groups that are particularly skilled at pushing government policy in positive directions. Even one success from a group like that can make vastly more of a difference than any but the largest of individual charities can hope to make over their lifetime. And I think people seriously underestimate how much impact a savvy, well-funded nonprofit can have in Washington. This is a small town that controls a very, very big budget, and corporations, sadly, have a much better appreciation for that dynamic than philanthropists do.

So I'm looking for suggestions. On domestic policy, I pretty much know who I think the most effective nonprofits are. But I'm a lot less certain on foreign policy, and particularly on foreign aid. To phrase the question a bit more specifically, who's the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities of our international budget?

Update: I'm interested by the visceral reactions some of you have to the idea that there's a role for philanthropic dollars in improving policy as well as directly improving living conditions. I don't think that's a controversial stance, either on the left or the right (just look at some of the conservative foundations and advocacy groups that operate in Washington). My question is who does this best on international aid, which is where I'd like to focus my giving, but where I have less knowledge about both what should be done and who is best placed to do it.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 3, 2010; 2:48 PM ET
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Posted by: trevindor | August 3, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Jeez, you've basically confessed that liberals like you think that charity = lobbyists. You'd rather stuff some lobbyist's pockets to bug the government to give more of our hard-earned dollars away, instead of giving money to needy people yourself. What is wrong with you?

Posted by: kea_ | August 3, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Are you sure these meet the (IRS) definition of charity and are not in fact Political Action Committees (PAC's)?

Posted by: jnc4p | August 3, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

my personal favorites are St Jude and my local EMS because my daughter's life was basically saved by them. In fact any EMS that calls me gets a check no matter what.

But I guess those aren't the "targeted" donations you're looking for.

Thought you couldn't go wrong in giving to children who have cancer but I guess you can. Who knew!

So basically you want a targeted liberal donation. I hear that FDL's always taking money whenever they can get it.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 3, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Just give directly to Hamas, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and the People's Liberation Army of Red China. Do not give to their PACs.

Posted by: truck1 | August 3, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Well, if you come up with some good options be sure to post them for the rest of us who feel similarly.

Posted by: bsolis1 | August 3, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Do you do socially responsible investing? Seems up your alley. It doesn't take the place of charity, mind you, but I'm a fan as I think it is much more effective to have my $100 pooled into $100 million and use market forces to push for social change. I like Domini Social Investments but admittedly haven't looked into many others.

Posted by: ThomasEN | August 3, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse

sounds suspiciously like:
to me...

Posted by: thelemonboy | August 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Can't resist a plug for the Quakers. The Friends Committee on National Legislation (full disclosure: they're my employer) has a pretty sophisticated lobbying program on preventing deadly conflict around the world (

This group is, as you describe, out to change federal policy, rather than provide direct relief. They're into concrete, measurable steps toward specific policy goals. Worth checking out.

Posted by: colintbrowne | August 3, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

If you want a group who makes a difference both internationally and here at home, please take a look at the VA Task Force located in Fairfax. They were - literally - the first responders from this country after the earthquake in Haiti, and they normally are the first aid group from America deployed to crises ranging from Katrina and the tsunami to national political conventions (sorry, bad joke there).

Posted by: Ben84 | August 3, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Sorry that link was bad.

Posted by: Ben84 | August 3, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

hey vision -- have you thought about volunteering as an EMT? I find it incredibily rewarding. that, it is nice to do actual phyical work after spending my day job at a desk.

plus, you get to see the clincal side of health care and laugh at how much the wonks and academics don't know. End-of-life care is a great example.

Posted by: NoVAHockey | August 3, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

I'd be curious to read your thoughts on good domestic non-profits beyond CBPP...

Posted by: jwerth | August 3, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

@kea_ I think the point being made is that charities, while nice, are not effective. It is more effective to have groups pressure the government to make sound policy decisions in those areas. For example, food stamps can reach those in need directly and more efficiently than any food bank.

When you give to a charity you are, in essence, putting a band-aid on a snake bite when you should be sucking the poison out.

Posted by: Zotnix | August 3, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Before you go giving money away I'd advise making sure your contributions are deductible. Political donations generally are not deductible.

Personally I found a local charity (a local canine rescue group) that I give money to when I have money. I prefer to keep it local, not just in my purchasing habits, but also in my giving habits. I live here, I want this place to be the best place it can be.

I suppose I could give to some big organization that shares my values, but it is so easy to be disappointed. For an example see the ADLs statement regarding the NY mosque.

Posted by: nisleib | August 3, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Well, thanks for asking Ezra. I think the best donation you could make is in time, not money. And you'll really need to search your heart before you do that. You'll have to ask yourself the question: Do you really care about the welfare of others? No matter who they are? One organization where I donated my time in 2008 was I liked the organization because I paid my own way and took an intensive 3-month course to prepare myself to help go with 10 other business consultants to Jakarta. Our goal was to help (begin to) restore/rebuild/rewrite the business plans for 10 companies in 10 days. It was inspiring to me because my client was an ISP provider whose CEO was muslim and all other C-Level execs were Chinese Christians ... who had (together) experienced the 1998 Jihad and mass-killings of Chinese Christians ... and wanted to revise their business to achieve goals such as: 1) provide a model of peaceful co-existence for other business leaders in their country; 2) create a relief organization with partner companies in nearby countries to address the immediate needs of their people in the event of war/disaster; 3)put anti-porn/internet filtering programs in the hands of their customers to help drive down the rate of child abuse, etc. They did not want us to come give them money. They wanted our hearts, minds and ideas. If you are willing to share your heart, mind and ideas with others who recognize their need ... you'll do just fine. Otherwise ... Ezra ... you will not be drawing on the rich heritage you have been given. Shalom.

Posted by: narenzo | August 3, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse


my problem is that my work has me working very long hours and always being "on call" so it'd be difficult to do. When and if work allows me to do it I'd definitely look into it. I give those guys (and ladies) credit. They don't get the respect they deserve. Not by a longshot.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 3, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Following up to @Zotnix's response to @kea, there's a book and various writings by Mark Winne, who was the Executive Director of the Hartford Food System, the non-profit that runs the food banks in that part of Connecticut. In his book and other writings, he lays out a forceful case that although it's good to give to food banks and other charities that provide immediate help, much more efforts (including efforts by the food banks themselves) need to be devoted to changing the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition: terrible job prospects for the poor, a dysfunctional transportation system low-income areas, corporate dominance of the food system, lack of grocery stores in inner cities, and so forth. His book, "Closing the Gap" is a pretty good introduction into the hunger situation in the U.S. and how to solve it.

As for policy based charities (there are some that are able to do certain kinds of political work while remaining 501-c3 non-profits), I like Green For All's approach to building a new green economy that is more inclusive and far less environmentally damaging. They work with local, state and federal agencies and political bodies to set up green energy programs, improve training opportunities and do other policy things.

Posted by: meander510 | August 3, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

@Ezra. Sorry - to answer your question more directly and less didactically ...

"To phrase the question a bit more specifically, who's the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities of our international budget?"

Government-directed and aided programs assume that "charity" is best directed/managed from the outside in, not the inside out. It assumes that man is "designed" for civil governance vs self governance (personal conscience). So .. of course you see, I'd have to disagree with the notion of a "Center for Budget and Policy Priorities of our international budget".


Posted by: narenzo | August 3, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

As long as you are not confusing charities with nonprofit policy organizations, I'm okay with you wanting to make your donations in the latter category rather than the former.

I've kind of given up on that myself, for the most part. I remember spending way more than I could afford back in the 90s to contribute to hiring a lobbyist to fight the Republican assault on the National Endowment for the Arts. It was the culture wars era. The only good thing that came out of it was that I got to have a nice private chat with Garrison Keillor on the stoop of the house where the benefit was taking place. But we lost that one big time. (By the way, I'd love it if you'd deal with arts policy some time--a long forgotten area of federal involvement.)

I do give to interest groups. But I think you have to factor in the political situation when doing so. I'll always remember what Barney Frank discussed back in the early years of the Bush administration at a meeting I attended. He begged us not to give our money to well-meaning interest groups because, given the administration and the makeup of Congress at that time, it was like flushing money down the toilet. They weren't going to be able to influence policy. I sort of agreed, and shifted my giving in those areas to political donations. That didn't work so well either. That was then, this is now, and perhaps the time to be strengthening smart, liberal policy nonprofits is now.

But don't discount charities either: they can play double roles as policy influencers when effective. But best can be donations of your time: mentor a kid, paint a school, etc. I know it's short-term help rather than foundational, but it does much for your own spirit and that of others.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | August 3, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

I think the larger issue is that our social safety net is so tattered that people need to rely on charities like food banks etc. for basic services to supplement the inadequate support people get from govt. which stinks IMHO. Especially when those charities are affiliated with sky wizardry. I am particularly offended when the only hospital within my insurance and easy driving distance is 7th day adventist affiliated. Why should my insurance copay go to a sky wizard supporting entity?

Posted by: srw3 | August 3, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Take a look at the Center for Global Development,

They do a lot of work on international aid effectiveness, and trying to improve aid policy.

Posted by: phil_h | August 3, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

World Social Forum, US Social Forum.

Mutual aid groups and other bottom-up organizing efforts.

Everything else is poppycock.

Oh, and you can volunteer for RightRides, maybe.

Posted by: Damek | August 3, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

The Rainforest Action Network is right down this alley... though they actually work outside of government and more in the marketing/activism arena.

They've pressured large companies and multinational conglomerates to reform their business practices to be more friendly toward the environment. They do this for the most part by exposing their practices and shaming them through marketing efforts.

I feel you get a big bang for the buck--it really puts the heat on a company when its brand is successfully threatened!

Posted by: scott_teresi | August 3, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

I am particularly offended when the only hospital within my insurance and easy driving distance is 7th day adventist affiliated. Why should my insurance copay go to a sky wizard supporting entity?

Posted by: srw3 | August 3, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse


if you despise it so much do one of two things:

1-drive a little further

2-change insurances.

Posted by: visionbrkr | August 3, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I feel good about using my money to actually help real people directly through traditional charity as opposed to using my money to grow government.

If you don't want to give food to the hungry, maybe it wouldn't offend your sensibilities to give money to a university scholarship program.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 3, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Why don't you just write a check to the U.S. Treasury?

It seems as though that is where you want peoples' money to end up anyway.

Posted by: lancediverson | August 3, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

The Self-Employed Women's Association in India: They are a labor union that represents poor, self-employed women workers. They are a one-stop shop for fulfilling their members' needs. In addition to performing traditional functions of a union, they have a microfinance arm, a litigation arm, and a policy arm. Here's the NYT on SEWA's founder Ela Bhatt:

Hillary Clinton is a long-time supporter and was brought to tears by a group of women from the organization singing "We Shall Overcome" when she visited India.

Posted by: jackie_chiles | August 3, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

Ezra - I know your interests are primarily domestic, but it would be interesting to hear some thoughts every now and then about possible connections with international issues, foreign aid, etc., in terms of the US-focused work you do. Your previous columns on food policy were always interesting.

Good resources for you:
Center for Global Development
Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network
Bread for the World (this is specifically ag/hunger related, but very powerful in terms of helping people understand global hunger/food security issues and their relationship to poverty - also they have a robust program on domestic hunger, malnutrition, and poverty)
The Chicago Council has a great program looking at international agriculture, hunger, and development also
WWF is good on global environmental issues - also Worldwatch (though less sure on what impact Worldwatch's advocacy efforts have re: international affairs)

Posted by: fswoboda | August 3, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

As some commentators have recommended, there is only one "Center for Budget and Policy Priorities" for foreign aid, and that's Nancy Birdsall's Center for Global Development (

Two other, more academic, centers are JPAL at MIT/Harvard and IPA at Yale. They do randomized controlled trials and then advocate for their wins. JPAL's Esther Duflo basically single-handedly created the global movement towards deworming.

Posted by: phantasypunk | August 3, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

This is not a direct answer to your question, just a different direction. I have run across a few stories recently regarding urban gleening. (See I have also been noticing the bare soil in front of the Y where I exercise. Community gardens are always popular. I think it would be worth the effort to enable people to find ways to feed themselves- set up a database for urban gleeners, find unused plots of land by charitable organizations, lobby the city for permission to use vacant lots. Plan and educate.

Posted by: punchaxverulam | August 3, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

Politically savvy, but traditional: Amnesty International USA ( Not politically savvy per se, but extremely effective: Deworm the World ( The latter is definitely not in the lobbying game, but the data is pretty impressive.

Posted by: reader44 | August 3, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. Thanks for asking. I've been mulling over something similar related to corporate citizenship and the need/willingness of businesses to become involved in areas that have been traditionally the domains of NGOs. (My theory being that populations...including corporations/politicians/consumers...are too interconnected and dependent upon each other these days for traditional divisions to remain, especially given finite resources.) All that said what about a place like the Academy for Educational Development? Or if you're looking to give to smaller orgs perhaps they could suggest a group?

Posted by: bmore2 | August 3, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

I actually think your talent as a speaker and your intellect and public personality has far more currency than any check you can write. I have yet to find any ngo, or non profit to my satisfaction. Oprah, as silly as it sounds, operates with the most straight forward use of money. Use your voice, not your checkbook.

Posted by: mspsfo | August 3, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

After my mom finished her GW master's in international affairs and stopped working for HHH, she went to work for the League of Women Voters' Overseas Education Fund. They focused on helping women deal with local issues like water and child care. They have morphed into Women in Law and Development, which is more women's rights and less practical village matters.

There are many good organizations run by Quakers, too. Not just the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

Posted by: lroberts1 | August 3, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I highly recommend, a charity that provides microfinance to entreprenuers and cooperatives in developing countries. Kiva allows you to make microfinance loans that, over time, are repaid into your account, allowing you to make additional loans to other ventures.

Kiva keeps its interest rates extremely low, giving these small businesses a chance to get off the ground and providing localized economic development in low-income countries.

Posted by: falls_chuuch | August 3, 2010 7:19 PM | Report abuse

--"So what I want are politically effective charities. Groups that are particularly skilled at pushing government policy in positive directions."--

LOL. Klein wants to donate his money to lobbyists. To help enslave his fellow man. To remake the world, one onerous law at a time, to better reflect the petty despotic nature of his thin intellect. What a disgrace.

Posted by: msoja | August 3, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Aside from individual cash assistance to friends in need, we've quit giving to charity.

Instead, we give to candidates who will make the need charities obsolete. Why continue to perpetuate the system of band-aids when what is needed is a different system?

The catch, of course, is that it's not tax deductible.

But that, I guess, is the charity part.

Posted by: Dema | August 3, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

Aside from individual cash assistance to friends in need, we've quit giving to charity.

Instead, we give to candidates who will make the need for charities obsolete. Why continue to perpetuate the system of band-aids when what is needed is a different system?

The catch, of course, is that it's not tax deductible.

But that, I guess, is the charity part.

Posted by: Dema | August 3, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

@Ezra per falls_church: is an exceptional organization IMHO. It offers a lending (microfinance) model that allows monies to transfer from person-to-person, eliminating the lossy economics of a centralized/globalized (policy-setting) organization. Sadly, I think you are looking for something more like the latter.

Posted by: narenzo | August 4, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

I would keep it simple here. If you are talking about organizations that combine international charity with a move to make political change, you could do a whole lot worse than Catholic Charities. I've donated to them for years (despite being a practicing Jew,) and their work to eradicate poverty on both a grass-roots and political perspective is incredible.

Posted by: gsy987 | August 4, 2010 5:04 AM | Report abuse

Ezra calls encouraging a movement toward Marxism "improving policy".

Ezra is a Maoist.

Posted by: FastEddieO007 | August 4, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

We have the privilege and responsibility in this country to guide policy with our vote, which is the greatest charitable gift you can give. I think most of our neighbors forget just what a vote means and how valuable voting can be. If you desire different changes in our government's policy-making, it says to me that you didn't use your votes to their fullest potential.

If you feel like you're not seeing results from your philanthropy, that is likely the result of spreading your charitable giving too thin. Sure, we'd all like to support every single worthy organization that asks for a donation. But if you spread $1000 amongst 100 organizations, it will do very little good. Instead, if you give that money to one organization, you'll see a more immediate impact.

Philanthropy is meant to impact your local community, to demonstrate visible results in your own backyard. Impacting policy at the level you are describing requires a very, very large pocketbook, the likes of which only a handful of Americans carry around with them.

I would suggest contacting the Development Director for those organizations you've supported in the past, and having a very frank discussion about your giving. Tell them you haven't seen any results, and see what they say. You'll be surprised at the resulting conversation.


Posted by: putnamm | August 4, 2010 9:52 AM | Report abuse

"But I don't really want to donate to traditional charities. The country needs food banks, of course, but a better system of food stamps would make a much bigger difference."

While I don't think there's anything bad about donating to policy advocacy organizations - and in fact, it can be quite good - I don't know if I buy the argument you write here.

The problem with donating to policy advocacy organizations is that your money is passing through so many filters. You donate money to the organization, which in turn donates to candidates or publishes ads, which in turn *maybe* influences politicians slightly in one direction or another.

On the other hand, if you donate to an organization like the Kibera School for Girls in the slum of Kibera in Kenya [disclaimer: one of my college classmates started this organization], basically all of your money is going to feeding and educating impoverished girls, with leftovers being used to build a new free women's community health center and green bio-latrines.

So I just think the "bang for your buck" argument falls a little short. I still think there's an important place for policy advocacy, especially to prove there is a voice for certain causes. (For example, I donate to J Street to show that peace-loving American Jews who oppose the oppression of Palestinians and the neocon rhetoric of AIPAC really do exist.)

Still, any donation is admirable, especially if it's for something you truly believe in and can make a positive difference in the world. Power to you!

Posted by: madjoy | August 4, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

this is a good one, they let you choose from among hundreds of small classroom projects:

Posted by: ThomasEN | August 4, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

On foreign aid – the best advocacy/policy group is ONE.

On the full 150 account foreign assistance budget, it’s the US Global Leadership Campaign.

Happy donating!

Posted by: bel214 | August 5, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

One, the group set up by Bono, is by far the largest advocacy group for international aid. (Many other groups, such as Oxfam, "do" aid and have small advocacy components; but as far as I know, One is the only large-scale organization set up to involve citizens and lobby the government.) I was wary of One at first, for the predictable reasons: that it was a vanity project for a rock star, that it would peddle simple, sentimental solutions to complex policy problems, that it would focus on "consciousness raising" rather on practical, actionable policy solutions. But to its credit, One has hired a professional staff and elicited the best thinking from the best development experts. The other group that aims to influence international development is the Center for Global Development. It doesn't lobby, but in the manner of traditional Washington think tanks, proposes thoughtful critiques of existing aid programs aimed at fellow professionals. If the bottom line of One is that we need more international aid, the bottom line for the Center is that we can spend what's been allotted more effectively.

Posted by: Eminpasha | August 5, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

This one struck me as worthy, particularly given how much good you can do with so little money there.

Charity: Hilde Back Education Fund

Though, they are probably growing rapidly following this documentary (which is where I learned of them):

Posted by: rat-raceparent | August 5, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

If your goal is to change the way the US government does foreign policy, look at MFAN, the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network- They are a network of experts on foreign assistance who are demanding a rewrite of the foreign assistance act, a comprehensive national development strategy, better transparency, better coordination, etc. Very good people with good ideas and a lot of clout in the development community.

There is also InterAction, which is a network of US-based NGOs that do foreign assistance work, whose purpose is to lobby the government to make foreign aid better. They work closely with MFAN, but they have a broader mandate and have been around longer.

And if you want more information about the movement for improving foreign aid, take a look at my organization's blog- We are called Global Washington, and we are a membership association representing the global development sector in Washington State.

As someone else already suggested, there is the Center for Global Development.

Posted by: danilangton | August 5, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

There are many think tanks and advocacy orgs that are working on international aid effectiveness issues. Check out the Center for Global Development, Oxfam and the people tied to William Easterly's, just to start. The UK's Department for International Development (DFID) is a pioneer in aid effectiveness issues. Reform of the international aid industry is an enormous and complex issue, with questions about effectiveness, inherent politicization of aid, accountability.... Lastly, the Government Accountability Office often does studies on aid effectiveness.

Posted by: caitlinmryan | August 9, 2010 4:12 AM | Report abuse

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