When considering philanthropic endeavors, sometimes it's great to go right to the source so you know where and how you're making an impact. In some ways, sites like Kiva (previously mentioned here) go a long way there, though microloan sites like Kiva take investments, not donations - you get the money back which you can then keep reinvesting.
To help out in your own back yard, you might want to check out Modest Needs, a site where you can help people in dire straits pay bills to prevent them from falling deeper into poverty. Here's a description from the site:
Since 2002, by working together in this very 'modest' way, Modest Needs' donors have stopped 5012 low-income individuals and families from entering the vicious cycle of poverty and a lifetime of dependence on the public welfare system for their survival.
And, in the process, with our 'small change,' we've freed up millions of dollars in state and federal funding that would've been used to support these people - our neighbors - had we turned our backs and done nothing to help them in their times of short term crisis.
Modest Needs verifies the information from the applicants to whatever extent possible and transparently discloses that on the application profiles. Here's a sample petition that was recently fulfilled:
Water Bill- Disabled Mother of 4 | Cost to fully fund this application: 327.00 Modest Needs Points
I am permanently disabled and I have custody of my four children. We receive SSI benefits and child support. I am medically not supposed to work, but last January we had an unexpected expense that caused us to fall behind in our household finances.
Last January, our family dog was sick and I had to take him to vet and pay for his care and medicines. I have been catching up slowly on our fixed income. Last month I started working again part-time, at a job that I probably should not be doing due to my health. But, I have to work to keep our family afloat.
I am asking for help to pay our water bill. I have been unable to pay it for the last few months. With my new job I should be able to pay this in the future. Thank you.
And here's the end result - the testimonial after it was granted:
I would like to thank every donor and the Modest needs foundation for helping me and my 4 children out. I did not know what we were going to do if we were not able to get help from modest needs and the donors( our anglels ) I had given up hope because I had been to local township offices and they turned me down. I thank you all so much that words could never express my gratitude and I thank GOD for you all and pray that GOD will bestow a blessing upon you all.
Thanks to Manhattan Users Guide for its write-up that informed me about Modest Needs. It's a great daily newsletter about culture, events, and other insights into New York City.