I get asked this at least once a day, if not more, from people on the street. Sometimes they have an elaborate schtick, performed while captive on the train, and sometimes they just sit peacefully with a coffee cup at their feet. I rarely give change to these people. It's not that I'm cheap or don't think they deserve, I'm just aprehensive about how they might use the money (a man who reaked of whiskey once walked down the aisle of a subway car asking us for change). Some people are happy to give what's in their pockets, even if it may go to ill pursuits, but I just can't stomach it. I'd rather see them go to shelters and soup kitchens or see a counselor to learn how to get back on their feet.
Instead of just talking about it, I've decided to put my money where my mouth is. Today I made a donation to the Coalition for the Homeless, a charitable group that fights homelessness in New York City. They offer the ability to give a monthly gift of any amount for any length of time. I would have preferred to give directly to a few shelters, but I didn't know which one to pick from the list provided by NYC DHS.
How did I pick Coalition? Of course, I did a google search first, but I also used Charity Navigator, which gives you a breakdown of the financials and inner workings of the organization and a 1-4 rating. Coalition Against Hunger scored a three, which is a very good rating. A key indicator is the percentage of their gross income that goes to program expenses — good charities keep this above 70%.
If you don't live in the city, I also recommend National Alliance to End Homelessness (4 stars on CN). Another great option is Habitat for Humanity, which Jori and I may volunteer for early next year.
If you're like me and hesitant about giving money without knowing how it will be used, do something about it. Do some research, find a cause you're passionate about, and donate in whatever way you can.