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Donating to a charitable foundation or a favorite cause displays the best of human nature. Those blessed with a little extra can support a worthy cause, and the donation can be given in the name of a chosen gift recipient.

This is an ideal way of giving a gift to that person on your list who already has everything they need, and provides an alternative to consumer products which may come with an environmental price tag.

Consumers may be aware of the burden excess consumerism puts on the environment, but have to balance these concerns with the pressure to give during the holidays. We want to do something for positive change, so we turn to organizations dedicated to protecting the environment and advocating for green legislation.

Even for those of us who enjoy a more traditional gift exchange, donating toward local or global environmental change may be much on our mind right now. As we near the end of the year, it’s time to consider our upcoming tax returns: any money wisely gifted now may pay off in April with a helpful deduction. But where to give? Dozens of charities compete for our attention and our checks. Each one sounds good on paper: the choices are bewildering. You’re not alone. Millions of potential givers are confused. Media reports warn of unscrupulous high-profile nonprofits who use donations to fund exorbitant salaries, wasteful overhead, or luxurious executive amenities. Donors want to see their gifts going to the needed cause, and not to inflated “administrative” costs.

There is help in navigating this jungle. Most major nonprofits have been investigated and reviewed by a few major “watchdog” organizations, including Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which is associated with the Better Business Bureau. If you’re considering supporting a particular cause and are curious how it ranks, try searching for it on all three sites, as they sometimes differ or provide a different perspective.

We’ve done some investigating of our own. These 10 best environmental charities will put your dollar to work; they stand behind their missions, have the clout to get big things done, and offer transparency in their financial accounting. To save you the trouble, we’ve verified that each of these organizations are top-rated by the three watchdog websites listed above. Each has earned at least two of these three: the maximum 4 stars from Charity Navigator, a grade of A, A-, or A+ from Charity Watch, and full accreditation from BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

These are large-scale operations whose work has a broad scope, making their mission relevant to all of us. No single organization will appeal to all donors — check out several until you find the one that best fits your priorities, with the bottom line to back them up.

1. Union of Concerned Scientists

UCS maintains a national network of nearly 17000 scientists who believe “rigorous analysis is the best way to understand the world’s pressing problems and develop effective solutions to them.” UCS’s findings and statements are frequently quoted by major news sources; they have become a recognized and respected voice of environmental advocacy. Their work focuses on clean energy solutions, global warming, and the puzzles of large-scale food production. UCS’s testimony has been instrumental in several pieces of important green legislation.

2. Natural Resources Defense Council

Called “One of the nation’s most powerful environmental groups” by the New York Times, NRDC combines “the grassroots power of 1.4 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals”. This time of year, NRDC offers holiday-ready “green gifts”: your donation results in a gift card describing the action it supports, such as “adopt a wolf in Yellowstone” or “save an acre of whale nursery” to add a tangible meaning to a personalized gift.

3. Environmental Working Group

Known for their annual “Dirty Dozen” list revealing the highest (and lowest) pesticide concentrations in conventionally-grown produce, EWG is known for researching and spreading awareness regarding toxic chemicals, sustainable versus exploitative agricultural practices, consumer product safety, and corporate accountability. Right now, EWG promises that monetary gifts will be doubled through a matching campaign. This is a good pick for those with a passion for clean food.

4. Greenpeace Fund

Made famous in the 1970’s and 80’s for its seafaring bands of activists peacefully accosting whaling ships and exposing covert nuclear testing, today’s Greenpeace describes climate change as “the number one threat facing our planet”. Greenpeace has not lost its passionate idealism, maintains its corporate integrity, and still inspires many to urgent, hopeful direct action. Courageous efforts by small groups of concerned individuals have influenced governments in the past, as with Greenpeace’s inaugural efforts to stop nuclear testing at Amchitka Alaska.

5. Friends of the Earth

Friends of the Earth describes itself as a “bold and fearless voice for justice and the planet”. Recent campaigns have targeted bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, “dirty” tar sands oil extraction, and the environmental devastation of palm oil production. Those who oppose widespread adoption of nanotechnology, genetically engineered foods, and human gene patenting will appreciate FOE’s clear stance and advocacy.

6. Rainforest Alliance

Rainforest Alliance has gained public recognition with their independent certification of common rainforest products, such as chocolate, coffee, bananas, and tea. Producers must meet strict sustainability standards to gain certification. The Alliance also works with foresters and the tourism industry in ecologically vulnerable areas. Their website offers consumer and traveler information, helping us work together to steward some of the most biodiverse, threatened, and globally critical habitats.

7. Earthjustice

Earthjustice is clear about its reason for being: “Because the earth needs a good lawyer”. Beginning as a Sierra Club team mounting a lawsuit to preserve an isolated California valley from development as a Disney ski resort, Earthjustice has become an independent crusade focusing on high-impact, precedent-setting battles. These are dedicated, experienced lawyers taking on the David-and-Goliath fights many of us feel powerless to influence. Donating here is one approach to evening the scales between the “big bucks” of large corporate interests and the often woefully underfunded voice of our struggling ecosystem.

8. Ocean Conservancy

Ocean Conservancy works to keep the ocean healthy, to keep us healthy.” Current areas of focus include addressing ocean acidification, restoration and oil-spill recovery in the Gulf of Mexico, and protecting the Arctic ecosystem from damage by increased shipping and oil and gas exploration. In the words of Jacques Cousteau, “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: we are all in the same boat.”

9. Earth Island Institute

One Earth Island proponent describes the group as “a community of creative activists with a great track record and cutting edge worldview.” E.I.I. nourishes ambitious fledgling projects, giving them fuel to thrive and potentially become independent nonprofits, such as Rainforest Action Network and Salmon Protection and Watershed Network. The California-based organization has several locally-focused initiatives under its wing, as well as international projects like the Center for Safe Energy and the Plastic Pollution Coalition, among many others. Supporters can pick and choose which project they’d like to fund. It’s a big strong umbrella under which you can still aim your support at a highly specific goal.

10. The Sierra Club Foundation

Another household name, the Sierra Club has a popular reputation as less radical than Greenpeace, less likely to cause arguments at the family dinner table. Political lobbying and legislative advocacy have always been central to Sierra Club’s mission. Today the Club focuses on moving beyond fossil fuel dependency and preserving wild spaces from harmful development, as well as offering their signature wilderness trek experiences to individuals across the country.

Points to keep in mind when shopping for a worthy cause:

Consider acting locally.

Many small hometown charities are skillfully volunteer run, keep overhead unusually low, build community connections, and make a visible difference in their region. Some of these nonprofits will be rated by the charity “watchdogs”, but you can usually talk with a representative personally to ask about the group’s financial status, percentage spent on program expenses, and current plans. Living Lands and Waters, focusing on Mississippi River cleanup, and the Montana Wilderness Association are just two examples of regionally-focused groups which use excellent financial management to channel the majority of funds directly toward positive change. Ask around in your own local circles.

Telemarketer? Just say no.

You may receive unsolicited phone calls asking for donations from a charity that sounds good — maybe one you’ve previously considered supporting. Though it may seem convenient to “get it over with” and donate once you’re on the phone, end the call instead. Most of these cold-callers are for-profit contractors which offer only a portion of the donation to the named charity (in some cases, the charity gets nothing). Maximize your donation by donating directly, either through the organization’s verified website or by mail. Avoid charities that waste donor money on expensive solicitors.

Copy-cat names?

Be wary of sound-alike organizations, which may take advantage of the integrity of a well-known charity by using a subtle distinction on their name. For example, while the “Humane Society” is a household term, and gets high ratings for its operations and effectiveness, the “National Humane Society” is unvetted by the charity ranking services and may be profiting from very understandable donor confusion.


Check for an organization’s tax-exempt status through a special section of the IRS website.

Spam or junk mail?

Read the privacy policy and ask direct questions about how they will use your information. Often, you can opt out of future mailings just by asking. Free “gifts” such as calendars, personalized mailing stickers, or fridge magnets are only a bonus if actually used — a vast majority of such swag ends up in the landfill. When contributing to an environmental cause, let them know you don’t want your donation to generate a big carbon footprint of its own!

Fear of commitment?

Most philanthropy advisors agree that your money will “work harder” in the direction you choose if you develop a giving relationship with a charity. Spreading it around, a little here and a little there, may seem more “fair”. But in reality, thousands of small donors cost the organization vastly more to solicit, process, and follow up with, when compared with a single substantial bequest. You will reduce your chosen cause’s overhead by making it clear you will continue to donate a consistent amount each year, provided they don’t spend that money sending you frequent glossy mailings or making reminder calls.

Short on cash? Action helps too.

Most of these websites have links for online activism, sometimes as simple as adding your name to a petition or clicking a link to send email to a legislator. If you’re more ambitious, look into volunteer opportunities to vote with your time and energy instead of (or in addition to) your wallet.

It’s a rich time of year to share gratitude for our blessings, nourish hope, and take stock of what’s truly important. Offering your donation with clarity and purpose is like planting a tree whose fruit will nourish your great-grandchildren.

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