This year we donated to (in rough decreasing order of amount): Greenpeace, PETA, Planned Parenthood, Doctors Without Borders (aka MSF), the American Red Cross (for general disaster relief), Amnesty International, movetoamend.org (which has been working towards a no-corporate-personhood US constitutional amendment), the Green Party of Canada, the Occupy Movement (in its nycga.net incantation), the ASPCA (NYC), Wikipedia, Avaaz, the ACLU, Transportation Alternatives, 350.org, WBEZ (This American Life, etc), and WNYC (Radiolab, On The Media, etc.).
When I decided to go back to corporate-land after a stint in NGO-land while I lived in Toronto, part of my personal quid pro quo was making more money with more sanity—what I saw of NGO-land was disappointing for me—and donating in some reasonable proportion to what I was making; 10% of earnings-before-tax-bonus-stock has been my rough target. This usually lands at the end of the year for procrastinatory reasons.
This list of organizations hits plenty of hot-button issues. Maybe someday I'll look back and regret them, or regret talking about them—the Occupy Movement looms large for that one; I'm sure many early Tea Partiers look with regret on what their movement has become—but in general I believe these organizations make my dollars go far for causes I care about. Greenpeace and PETA in particular employee fairly extreme tactics, and yet demonstrate big successes and seem to have clout to simply "scare" corporations and other organizations with the exposure they'll give them which is a sort of second-order efficiency.
In reality I have no idea what any of these donations do; it's a pretty pure leap of faith that they make any difference. Sure, I get scads of emails about victories in far off lands helping animals people I'll never meet. We occasionally go to events where these victories are touted, but maybe they would have happened without my money, or maybe they would have happened without the NGO at all. Maybe the NGO attracts so much attention and counter-money to an issue that they're counterproductive; Greenpeace and PETA and Planned Parenthood may all be subject to that.
So, it's a leap of faith, but one that I take willingly. I truly believe that MSF rescues children from otherwise irreversible damage from starvation, that Greenpeace leverages large corporations and even governments into being better stewards of our planet, that Avaaz and movetoamend.org are helping to organize "democratic revolutions", that 350.org is a focal force for good in the fight for stewardship of Jane's climate.
I believe that PETA and the ASPCA help animals get better treatment, albeit on very different scales. I believe that the ACLU defends important freedoms that are part of the American social contract, and that the Occupy Movement—despite its failings and weaknesses—is well-placed to help move forward certain critical conversations about wealth equality and social justice. I believe that Transport Alternatives has helped build a bridge from New York City's citizens and government (and, yes, drivers!) to its cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders.
And, most easily of all, I believe that Wikipedia is a great resource for humanity and for me, that WNYC and WBEZ produce excellent podcasts that are entertaining (This American Life), informative (RadioLab and Planet Money) and downright important (On The Media).