Types of Health Charities

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on March 30, 2011
5 min read

Health-related charities make up about 81,000 of the more than 1 million public charities, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics. If you are interested in donating to a health-based charity, having such a dizzying selection can make it difficult to decide. From hospital foundations to international health and relief organizations, health charities do many different things -- advocacy, support of patients and families, outreach, patient care, research -- so how do you know where your money is going?

Each medical charity has an overriding mission that guides it. If that mission coincides with your desire to help, you have found the best charity for your donation. To help you find the right type of charity for you, here are some of the different kinds of institutions to which you can make medical donations.

Hospital charitable foundations sound like what they are -- not-for-profit fundraising institutions for hospitals. With today’s high cost of providing medical care, hospitals often do not have enough funds for services, programs, and equipment even after insurance and patient payments. The charitable foundations "are able to contribute to providing for care, equipment, and treatment that otherwise might not be at the same level or breadth of service if it weren’t for them,” says William C. McGinly, president and chief executive officer ofthe Association for Healthcare Philanthropy. While the hospital itself may also do research, its central role is caring for patients.

According to McGinly, about $7.6 billion in hospital donations went into hospitals through medical foundations in 2009. About 3/4 of its members work in hospital foundations.

Examples: American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC), the fundraising arm of St. Jude’s. ALSAC raised $692 million in 2010 for the Memphis, Tennessee, hospital as well as its 20 partners in 15 countries around the world. St. Joseph’s Foundation in Phoenix, Ariz., is another well-known hospital charitable foundation.

Many medical research organizations do not see any patients but concentrate on biomedical research into things like the disease process, immune response, and development of medications to fight disease. Although not-for-profit hospitals may conduct clinical trials or other research, their major focus is dealing with patients who are actively combating disease.

Examples: The Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center is one of the world's largest private research centers dedicated to fighting (HIV). Its researchers are pursuing the molecular and cellular biology of HIV, development of both drug therapies and vaccines, and new ways to block HIV infection. The Autism Research Institute has conducted and supported autism research since 1967. It maintains the world's largest databank of detailed case histories of autistic children, over 40,000 from over 60 countries. ARI also publishes the Autism Research Review International, a quarterly newsletter covering biomedical and educational advances in autism research.

This category may include large, well known charities which can focus on multiple types of cancers or childhood conditions. It may also include smaller private charities that often concentrate their more limited funds on a specific health problem. These charities may arise from a personal experience or a single-minded dedication to eradicate a particular disease. They will often spend much of their money on research, usually by raising grant money to give to research foundations.

“Health is always personal and people tend to give to the charities that have affected them personally. People want to give to cancer that pertains to the part of the body, like colon or breast cancer,” says Jamie Gallisdorfer, national vice president for marketing and communications at Community Health Charities, the only U.S. federation dedicated to health charities. Smaller, single-minded charities allow donors to target their funds to particular causes, such as cancer in children or cancer of the pancreas.

Examples: The American Cancer Society and Shriners are two well known charities that fit this category. Two smaller charities include Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which was founded by a family whose daughter got cancer when she was almost a year old, and the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which seeks to eliminate cancer in the pancreas.

If you want to donate to the poor around the world, other medical foundations provide health and relief teams that focus on improving health in poverty-stricken countries everywhere, during times of disaster or otherwise.

Examples: The Red Cross and Salvation Army are also examples of organizations that reach out to hurting people to provide relief during disasters. Organizations like PATH, the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, bring health services and technology to countries that lack basic things like vaccines, laboratories, and often, doctors. International Relief Teams provides assistance to victims of disaster, poverty, and neglect through medical education and training, domestic and international relief, public health, and surgical outreach.

Advocate charities spend their money on outreach in the form of educational programs, mobilization of support for legislative efforts, screenings for prevention, and training and support for medical professionals and the public.

Examples: The American Heart Association works for heart disease prevention, education, and advocacy. It also reaches out to share its research findings with the public, unlike many medical research institutes. Breathe California of the Bay Area is a smaller advocate charity in San Jose that fights lung disease in various forms through educational programs, screening, and support.

Some health-related charities offer support services for those with health needs. These charities help families and patients with concerns outside medical care.

Examples: The Ronald McDonald House provides housing while patients are getting medical care. The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants desires of children with life-threatening medical conditions, such as a wish by a child with leukemia to be a policeman for a day.

Umbrella organizations represent more than one charity or interest. They channel funds to organizations that concentrate on different issues or have several missions they develop programs for on their own.

Examples: United Way is an example because, although it has a health initiative to increase the number of youth and adults who are healthy and avoid risky behaviors, it also has the mission to cut the number of high school dropouts and help working families. Community Health Charities of America transfers funds it collects to local offices of 60 different national and international health charities like the American Cancer Society or the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Both United Way and CHCA let you choose where your donation will go while also giving you information on a variety of charities and programs.

When choosing good charities to donate to, you can turn to several sources, such as the Better Business Bureau's online Wise Giving Alliance or CharityNavigator.org. Charity Navigator has a four-star rating system for charity efficiency, while the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance reports are based on 20 standards. Contact information and web sites are also available through the BBB.

As a general rule, you want to choose a charity that uses 25% or less of its funds for administrative expenses, but because of the way it calculates those expenses, the BBB suggests a 35% cap.