Anna Hargrave calls it “paralysis by possibility.” That’s the feeling some people get this time of year when they’ve decided to donate to charity but don’t know exactly which nonprofit to choose.

“They know there are a lot of great organizations but once they start looking, they feel overwhelmed,” said Hargrave, executive director of the Montgomery County office of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, a group that works with philanthropies and donors.

Things are even more complicated this year. The coronavirus has affected everything. Charities on the front lines of the pandemic have been scrambling to help clients. Those groups in areas previously unrelated to health find themselves pivoting to address the virus while continuing their traditional work.

In other words: It’s more important than ever to give. Dec. 1 is Giving Tuesday, a good time to take action.

In April, The Washington Post retooled its Helping Hand campaign to support four charities that address food security: Feeding America, Meals on Wheels America, No Kid Hungry and World Central Kitchen. (For information, and to donate, visit

If you’re interested in finding a charity, here are some tips:

Think about the sort of work you want to support.

“When the pandemic struck, people were particularly concerned about core safety-net causes,” Hargrave said. “They needed to make sure people had a roof over their heads and food on the table.”

Health, food and housing are always going to be the top three immediate needs, said Barbara Harman, the founder and chair of the Catalogue for Philanthropy, a website and publication that spotlights hundreds of charities in the greater Washington area.

Those needs continue, but we are far enough into the pandemic that the downstream impacts of the virus on other sorts of nonprofits have become clearer.

For example, legal services charities have been swamped with clients desperate to prepare wills and custody arrangements. Why? “Front-line workers are afraid they’re going to die and there’ll be no one take care of their kids,” Harman said.

Arts groups have seen their audiences disappear — and with them their funding.

“In a year of tremendous isolation, the arts are a place of community,” Harman said. We need them and the solace they provide.

Added Harman: “We’ve all seen the impact of the absence of empathy.”

Think about what moves you.

It’s okay if this is an emotional decision. The best relationship between a donor and a recipient is a personal one.

“I often find that taking a little bit of time to reflect on what you feel grateful for or what you’re reading in the paper that’s making you really mad is helpful,” said Hargrave.

Said Harman: “Meaningful charitable giving is really going to emerge from what you care most about. For me, it’s that dialogue between perceived community needs and where my own interest and knowledge interact with that.”

Think about the size of the charity.

“Some people love big, stable well-known organizations that are doing work at scale and serving thousands of people,” said Hargrave. “Others are drawn to small, entrepreneurial, scrappy start-ups. They like something new that’s trying something different.”

The Catalogue for Philanthropy — visit it at — is a good place to start. The D.C.-area charities it highlights have budgets between $100,000 and $4 million. All have been vetted by Harman and her team.

The groups are divided into 16 categories, including such areas as basic needs, food and housing; health, wellness and senior services; youth and community arts; and mentorship and college access.

Let the charity decide how to use your gift.

From a nonprofit’s point of view, the best money has no strings attached. It goes into the general operating fund. Restricting a donation to a certain area makes it harder for a charity to direct money where it’s needed.

Said Hargrave: “If a donor truly wants to make an impact — if you believe in the organization and its mission and you trust their leadership — then you should give them the flexibility to deploy those dollars in the way that will make the deepest difference.”

Decide how much to give.

Hargrave said that when pledge time rolls around at her church, the minister jokes that congregants should give till it hurts — then keep giving until it feels good again.

“I always liked that,” Hargrave said. “When you’ve landed on an organization that’s addressing something that you care about deeply — when you make that contribution and it shows up on your credit card statement — it should make you feel so good that you are a part of that work.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit