This time of year, many generous but busy people in the Washington area face a predicament. They want to donate money to local charities before the tax year ends but don’t have time to research where their dollars will have the most positive impact.
Enter the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington. The innovative publication makes it easy to find a small, worthy nonprofit in our area that’s doing just the kind of work that a discerning giver wishes to support.
Want to help a prison book club for jailed D.C. teens? A free health clinic in Arlington? How about a Silver Spring group that provides tables, chairs and dishes to furnish poor people’s bare apartments?
The catalogue, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, describes such options in print and online. More important, it does in-depth research, including a financial audit, to ensure that the nonprofits it lists are effectively serving real needs in the community — and aren’t misusing or wasting money.
One satisfied user is Larry Platt, a housing finance lawyer in Chevy Chase. He needed only a couple of hours with the catalogue to pick about 30 groups to which he donated thousands of dollars this year.
“First, it enables me to do one-stop shopping for charitable giving,” Platt said. “Second, it provides the filter, the vetting function. I can look at the nonprofits they select with a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
The catalogue also has been a boon for community-based nonprofits with little or nothing to spend on marketing. It lists only groups with total budgets of $3 million or less, in the belief that larger organizations have enough resources to attract visibility and raise money on their own.
“We’re not going to put the Red Cross in there. They don’t need the publicity,” said Barbara Harman, founder and president of the catalogue.
Harman, 65, a retired Wellesley College literature professor, saw the need for the catalogue after she took over as executive director of the Harman Family Foundation in 2000. The foundation was set up by her late father, Sidney Harman, the Washington businessman who made a fortune in audio equipment.
Barbara Harman was frustrated at the difficulty of identifying small nonprofits to which to donate. “I figured if I had trouble finding them, then other people would have trouble finding them, too,” she said.
The catalogue typically generates more than $2.5 million a year in total contributions to the 331 groups in its online database. Last year, 2,218 donations, averaging more than $1,100, were made.
The print edition of the catalogue usually features about 70 nonprofits. It’s mailed free each year to about 20,000 well-to-do individuals in the Washington area and to anybody who requests a copy on the Web site.
Some donors give as little as $10. The biggest yet was $250,000.
“People feel: ‘I don’t have Bill Gates’s money to give away. I can’t cure malaria. But when I give away my $500, or my $250, to a small nonprofit, it can have a big impact,’ ” Harman said.
That’s been the case for the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, which runs a reading group for teens in the D.C. jail. The club has a full-time staff of three and an annual budget of about $250,000. Since it was listed in 2007, it has received more than $100,000 via the catalogue.
“They are the bridge between the front-line work we are doing and the people who want to make the city better and want to support groups like ours but don’t know about us,” said Tara Libert, Free Minds’s executive director.
She and other nonprofit executives said they also benefited from the five-month application and vetting process necessary to win entry in the catalogue.
“We [nonprofits] need to be scrutinized,” said Mark Bergel, executive director of A Wider Circle, which provides furniture and other basic necessities to needy families. It has received almost $90,000 through the catalogue.
“Unfortunately, there are instances in the nonprofit world where organizations have overhead of 50 percent or 75 percent, or don’t use the funds as advertised,” Bergel said.
Nancy Keener of McLean uses the publication to raise the next generation to be charitable. She and her husband, co-owner of a property company, have their two daughters, ages 26 and 28, look at the catalogue and pick five nonprofits each. The parents then contribute to them.
“It’s been a wonderful tool to teach our children about philanthropy,” Keener said. “My husband and I are both natives. We feel very strongly about helping the smaller nonprofits in our home town.”
In this holiday season, it’s gratifying to see an enterprise that does such good for givers and recipients alike.
I discuss local issues at 8:50 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.