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How to give this holiday season, from an expert

Katherina Rosqueta, who directs UPenn's Center for High Impact Philanthropy, shares her wisdom for how to donate effectively.

Katherina Rosqueta
Katherina RosquetaRead moreDN

THE SEASON of giving has arrived, but the question of how to give can be complicated. Did you know, for example, that a dollar you donate as cash to an organization like Philabundance can go 10 or 20 times as far to help feed the hungry as a dollar you spend at the grocery store for packaged foods you donate to a food drive? (Because food banks can buy at deep, deep discounts.)

Katherina Rosqueta, who directs the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) at the University of Pennsylvania, knows that and more. She's among a group of social scientists nationally who have begun to crunch the numbers on how people's charity dollars can go furthest - whether they're giving $5 or $50,000.

CHIP provides insight and analysis for billionaires like Bill Gates, but their ideas about how to direct your holiday giving, free at their website, are for everybody. (Go to, and click on "Year End Giving 2013 Guide.")

Gary Thompson talked to Rosqueta this week on "Giving Tuesday," the day after Cyber Monday, which CHIP and some affiliated groups are working to establish as the day for folks to think about how their charitable giving can do the most good.

Q Are people hyper-focused on giving during the holidays?

Depending on what study you look at, between 25 percent and 50 percent of giving happens in the United States between Thanksgiving and New Year's. So people are thinking about it.

Q You don't recommend individual charities, but you encourage people, through the tools on your site, to look at where their money is going, and think about whether it's doing maximum good. On the way over here, for instance, a guy on the subway hit me up for money. My guess is that's low-impact philanthropy.

There are many things to think about when evaluating high-impact opportunities. One is evidence that the money you're giving is making a difference in the life of the person you're trying to help.

Now, I'm not an expert on homelessness, but there is evidence out there that if you're going to give a dollar to someone on the street versus a dollar to one of the many great organizations that are tring to get people off the street, evidence is those practices will make a bigger difference in the lives of people we are trying to help.

Q CHIP sifts through a lot of data and research to evaluate the efficiency of donations, but you also place a lot of value on what you call "practical wisdom." What is that?

We're focused not so much on theory, but on what actually works on the ground. What donors really care about is the impact on people's lives.

That's where practical wisdom comes in. It's the experience of people on the front lines, trying to help, and what they know. For example, during the economic downturn, we saw these really high rates of foreclosure, and we looked at models meant to reduce foreclosure.

There's academic literature about that, but what our team did was listen in on help lines to understand the challenges families were facing. How did effective housing counselors address them?

Q And that's something the average person, who wants to give, is not in a position to do.

The way we think of our work is that we do the legwork so that you can get to impact faster.

Q Christmas question: Nicholas was granted sainthood not for giving, but for giving anonymously. Does it matter?

There are many different reasons people choose to give anonymously - sometimes to protect their own privacy, sometimes to make sure the focus of philanthropy is on the good work of a nonprofit, or on the outcome.

But there are other situations where people can be impactful. When Melinda Gates very publicly talked about having grown up and gone to Catholic schools, and her work as a donor supporting public heath, supporting programs around family planning, that got a lot more attention than if she'd been yet another anonymous donor.

So there can be plenty of good reasons to donate publicly and plenty of good reasons for choosing anonymity.

Q Is it better to give than to receive?

This is not my area of expertise, but there is a lot of research both in the management literature and in the psychological literature that says, for individuals, it is always better to give.