The mission: To provide college scholarships and financial aid to U.S. students and help grassroots groups set up their own tuition-assistance programs. “With student debt at an all-time high and university dropouts on the rise, this support is more crucial now than ever,” says president and chief executive officer Lauren Segal.
Why it stands out: It is the country’s largest provider of private scholarships, awarding more than $2.9 billion to 1.9 million students and spending an extraordinary 97 percent of its total budget on programs. The 54-year-old organization’s Dollars for Scholars program, for example, boasts nearly 1,100 volunteer-run chapters, which aid local college-bound students. (To find a chapter near you, go to the website, click on “Programs & Initiatives,” then “Dollars for Scholars,” and search by ZIP code.)
Your money at work: A $50 donation buys an annual bus pass so that a community-college student can commute to campus.
The mission: To feed malnourished children around the world and help communities grow their own food sources.
Why it stands out: It’s simple. Action Against Hunger/ACF International fulfills its mission by delivering aid to 7 million people in more than 40 countries annually. “Saving the most vulnerable is our first priority, so we focus on rescuing young children who are on the brink of death, and we have a 90 percent survival rate in the communities where we work,” says the organization’s chief executive officer, Nan Dale. The group doesn’t only offer handouts: In Kenya, ACF has taught more than 43,000 people how to establish vegetable gardens and plant crops that are resistant to drought. Your money at work: A $45 donation provides 45 days of special energy-dense food for a severely malnourished child.
The mission: To protect human well-being by ensuring healthy oceans, fresh water, and a stable climate.
Why it stands out: Through its fieldwork in more than 40 countries, Conservation International studies how economic and human development affect natural habitats—including tropical rainforests, grasslands, watersheds, and the sea. Based on the findings, the group works with local, national, and global governing bodies to influence policy and increase awareness. In Brazil, for example, its researchers have been able to demonstrate that the marine-protected areas (including no-fishing zones) in local waters have been beneficial to marine life and to fishermen and the local tourism industry.
Your money at work: A $15 donation helps protect an acre of tropical rainforest.
The mission: To connect benefactors with people who seek to make significant improvements in their communities or around the world.
Why it stands out: GlobalGiving provides a carefully vetted online marketplace in which small groups can solicit funds for their causes—anything from providing clothing and toys to an orphanage in Japan to building a neighborhood gym in Washington State. This nine-year-old group’s rapid growth means more people than ever are receiving assistance: In 2011, more than $55 million in grants were given to more than 4,800 grassroots projects—nearly 2½ times the number of projects from the previous year.
Your money at work: A $50 donation trains two women in Nepal in sustainable-farming methods, such as seed saving and composting.
The mission: To eliminate the most dire problems—poverty, disease, illiteracy, and hunger—that children face in the United States and internationally.
Why it stands out: Few nonprofits are this comprehensive in their approach to Big Problems. Save the Children works to break the cycle of poverty by delivering direct assistance, like food and medicine. It also provides access to education and financial tools, such as savings programs that give families the opportunity to achieve greater stability. A recent World Bank study found that students who participated in the group’s early-education program in Mozambique were 24 percent more likely to enroll in primary school. As a result, the African nation is introducing preschools nationwide based on the charity’s model.
Your money at work: A $70 donation provides education to a girl in Afghanistan for one year, paying for a year’s worth of school fees, uniforms, books, and other supplies.
The mission: To care for animals and protect them from cruelty.
Why it stands out: The number is staggering—76,000 animals (including injured wildlife and victims of natural disasters, puppy mills, research labs, and the exotic-pet trade) have their lives improved by the Humane Society every year. The largest animal-protection organization in the country and its affiliates also offer a wide range of vital services, such as free spaying-and-neutering clinics, medical treatment, and rescue and emergency care. Case in point: After Hurricane Irene, in 2011, the society opened emergency shelters in North Carolina and Vermont to care for displaced pets and handed out pet food for animals affected by the disaster.
Your money at work: A $100 donation provides an abused cat or dog with medical care and shelter while it awaits adoption.
The mission: To provide health-care services to the poor.
Why it stands out: Although PIH deploys medical workers in 10 countries, including Rwanda (where it recently helped open the nation’s first cancer center), the group does some of its greatest work in Haiti. In the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, PIH treated thousands of victims. Its doctors also treated 75,000 patients sickened by the cholera epidemic less than a year later. “I’ve seen cholera take a child’s life in one day,” says Louise Ivers, M.D., PIH’s senior health and policy adviser. “But our efforts in Haiti can prevent this devastating disease from spreading.” PIH has also made major inroads into fighting tuberculosis: Tens of thousands of patients have been treated in Russia, Kazakhstan, Lesotho, Haiti, and Peru.
Your money at work: A $120 donation supplies a cholera-treatment site in Haiti with three days’ worth of disinfectant.
The mission: To ensure that the 800 million people in developing countries have access to clean, safe drinking water.
Why it stands out: For starters, 100 percent of public donations are used to fund clean-water projects. (Overhead costs are covered by foundations, sponsors, and donors who choose to help with operational funding.) For another, this six-year-old organization champions simple, innovative solutions, such as freshwater wells and filters that use sand and microorganisms to remove contaminants. The results are impressive: The 255 residents of Othkouv, a village in Cambodia, no longer have to spend countless hours and money collecting firewood and buying charcoal to boil drinking water, since Charity: Water installed special filters in residents’ homes.
Your money at work: A $64 donation provides a filter—and therefore clean water—to one Southeast Asian family.
The mission: To protect and create awareness of the nation’s cultural, historical, and scientific heritage and to conduct pioneering research.
Why it stands out: Yes, the Smithsonian is the place to take your kids to see Kermit the Frog, triceratops bones, and the Wright Brothers’ airplane. But the world’s largest museum and research complex is more than a collection of artifacts. Each year, it holds cultural celebrations and creates traveling exhibitions on a huge range of topics (recent ones include space exploration and skateboarding in Native American culture). The organization, which receives some federal money but is not a government agency, also creates online curriculums, classroom activities, and other educational resources that teachers can use free of charge.
Your money at work: The Smithsonian says donations help keep museum admission free of charge, but it will not release specific donation breakdowns.
The mission: To provide medical assistance to international victims of poverty, natural disasters, and civil unrest.
Why it stands out: In all 50 states and in 70 countries, Direct Relief works with local partners to make sure that health-care providers can get medications and supplies. For example, this year the group, which spends nearly 99 percent of its budget on medical assistance, treated victims of Cyclone Daphne in Fiji until normal health-care services were restored. Direct Relief has also endeavored to reduce the transmission of HIV/AIDS by distributing 20 million rapid HIV tests, which give results in 15 minutes without the need for a lab or electricity, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Your money at work: A $250 donation provides equipment and supplies for a midwife to safely deliver 10 babies in a war-torn region of Africa.