A New Year is here, and with it good intentions to do more to help support the causes that matter to divers. But do you know where your donated dollars are going, and how hard are they working for the cause?

Nowadays, appeals and requests arrive year-round, with the pace picking up during the holiday season and year-end. Even checking out at the store involves deciding on the spot if you wish to donate to this or that cause by adding an amount above the cost of your purchase, dropping your change into a collection jar, adding a bag of groceries for a food bank, purchasing clothing or toys for the less fortunate, then stepping past the bell-ringer and donation kettle at the door. 
What causes this flood of appeals and requests? With federal, state and local government funding tightening or drying up, NGOs (see sidebar) press harder on individuals like you, me and my exasperated friend to support their causes. At the same time, legitimate charitable organizations find that increasing amounts of their budgets are used for overhead and operating expenses such as staffing, rent, marketing, advertising, mass mailings and robocalls. And, of course, in tight economic times there is more likelihood of encountering out-and-out scammers hoping to prey on your good impulses to help find solutions to problems.
If you add up all of the appeals over a calendar year, you could be giving away more than you realize of your hard-earned cash. Plus you can’t be sure of the legitimacy of some of the appeals, or how much of your donated dollar is going to be applied to solving actual problems or used for administrative overhead. And you run the risk of donating to an organization that sounds legitimate, but isn’t. For example, The Center for Whale Research legitimately monitors orca whales for science in the Pacific Northwest. But beware of the similar-sounding Institute for Cetacean Research, which is a front group for Japanese whaling interests and probably does not share the same concerns for marine mammals that you do.
Okay, you are ready to step up to the plate and start being part of the solution and not just complain about the problems, including overfishing, shark finning, captive marine mammals, whale or dolphin hunting, water quality, beach access, habitat conservation, whatever floats your boat. The first two things you as a caring, engaged, informed donor should do are:
Make an annual giving plan and budget. Stick with the plan and budget.
With a plan and budget in place, there is no need to respond to the appeals and requests you receive, and no need to feel guilty or uncomfortable at the register or exit if you choose not to give there. You also have the peace of mind knowing that the organization(s) in your Annual Giving Plan and Budget have been thoroughly vetted by you, the CEO of yourself and your money.
So how do you become an NGO expert? With a little research and easily accessible online tools. With more than 1.5 million NGOs estimated to be operating in the US, finding the right fit could be daunting. But just like night diving or photographing under water, let’s narrow the beam and shine the light where we want it. Here’s how to get started narrowing the NGO field down to a manageable size:
Decide in what area(s) you wish to help. Is it humanitarian, environmental, health, education or other categories? 
As divers, environmental issues are probably top-of-mind for many of us. And because we are living and diving in California, we would probably like to help with issues affecting California waters. These issues range from coastal and shoreline conservation to water quality, fishing regulations, marine protected areas (MPAs), public education, public service, and more. 
Decide if you wish to donate to an international, national, state or local organization. 
One of the first places to ask about local issues is your local dive store. Chances are store personnel will have experience with issues impacting divers and will have knowledge of organizations watchdogging the issues. Or check with local chapters of national organizations such as Wildcoast or the Nature Conservancy. Also, think outside the box. For example, the National Audubon Society, Audubon California and local Audubon chapters are involved in conserving and restoring natural ecosystems, not just for birds, but for all wildlife and their habitats, including marine life, and for future generations of humans to enjoy. 
After checking with your dive store, check online by typing California environmental NGOs or organizations into your search engine. You will get hits from sites such as wikipedia, Eco-usa, earthshareca, webecoist, and many more. Look over the listed organizations and find some that are a geographic and/or philosophical match with your giving goals.  
Now it is time to go online and check with the charity checkers to vet the organizations you are considering as part of your Annual Giving Plan and Budget.
These charity performance rating groups help you make sure that the organization your are vetting is for real, adhering to their mission, meeting the legal criteria for being a non-profit, and help you determine how much of you donated dollar is going to solve the problem and not just to administrative expenses. Think of this as intelligent giving, which is probably better and safer than impulse giving. Leading charity checkers include:
Charitynavigator has an excellent page, Methodology, on what type of charities they evaluate and the criteria used to perform the evaluation. They evaluate only 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt organizations that file a Form 990 for at least 7 years. In addition, public support must exceed $500,000 and total revenues exceed $1,000,000. They do not evaluate private foundations. In some cases, a worthwhile smaller organization may not pop up on charity checker radar, but at least you can be familiar with the methodology the trackers use and apply it yourself to a smaller or private group when evaluating them for a potential donation.   
Legitimate smaller organizations should be registered with the Internal Revenue Service and the State of California Franchise Tax Board. The IRS website, irs.gov, is also a good place to do some research at EO Select Check. This online tool allows the user to search for and select Exempt Organizations such as charitable, religious, and political organizations, as well as private foundations and other non-profits. EO Select Check also allows the user to check certain information about federal tax status and filings.
The State of California Franchise Tax Board website, ftb.ca.gov, also offers an online Exempt Organizations List, Revoked Exempt Organizations List, and Suspended Exempt Entities.
Once you have selected the organization(s) you wish to include in your Annual Giving Plan and Budget, I find that I prefer a three-tiered system of giving. I join the national organization, the state organization and the local chapter in my community. By joining the national and state organizations, I help provide support at national and state levels, where much of the vital legislative action takes place. By joining the same organization at the local chapter level, I make a difference in my own community by actively participating in events such as cleanups and fundraisers.
Giving Guide 
To help you get started, here is a list of a dozen respected California environmental organizations, with knowledge of issues that matter to divers:
Monterey Bay Aquarium
The mission is to inspire conservation of the oceans.
The Birch Aquarium at Scripps
The mission is to provide ocean science education, to interpret Scripps research, and to promote ocean conservation.
Ocean Institute-Dana Point
Uses the ocean as a classroom to educate and inspire children to learn about the ocean.
Conserving coastal and marine ecosystems and wildlife.
Audubon California
The mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.
California’s Coastal and Marine Program (Nature Conservancy)
The mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.
Surfrider Foundation
The mission is to protect and enjoy our oceans, waves and beaches.
California State Parks Foundation
The mission is protecting, enhancing and advocating for California’s 280 state parks.
California Ocean Science Trust
The mission is promoting collaboration and mutual understanding among scientists, citizens, managers, and policymakers working toward sustained, healthy, and productive coastal and ocean ecosystems.
Catalina Island Conservancy
The mission is stewardship of the land through a balance of conservation, education and recreation.
California Coastkeeper Alliance
The mission is to unite 12 local Waterkeeper programs to work for swimmable, fishable and drinkable waters for California communities and ecosystems.
California Marine Sanctuary Foundation (Marine Protected Areas) 
The mission is to advance the understanding and protection of the Monterey Bay and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuaries and other coastal and ocean resources in California.
NGO: By Definition
According to NGO.org, a non-governmental organization (NGO) is any non-profit, voluntary citizens’ group which is organized on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, environment or health. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements. 
Administrative Expenses: How Much is Too Much?
Is there a rule of thumb for what is an acceptable percentage for organizational administrative expenses? Sort of. According to the NonProfit Times, the average American believes that a charity should spend no more than 23 percent on overhead. But truth be told, charities actually spend 36.9 cents on the dollar. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance recommends that fundraising costs not exceed 35 percent of contributions. So there you have a ballpark figure.  Online charity checkers can help you evaluate an organization’s percentage of administrative overhead, or you can ask the organization yourself, keeping in mind the 35 percent or less suggested figure.