Here are three places to give that I think have a really good impact-to-dollar ratio, low administrative overhead, and their hearts in the right place.
Water Partners International. From the website: More than one billion people lack access to a safe supply of drinking water. Water-related diseases are the leading cause of death in the world. This killer takes the lives of more than 14,000 people each day and is responsible for 80% of all sickness in the world. Compounding the problem is the fact that more than 50 percent of the water supply projects in the developing world fail.
What I like about Water Partners is that they fully investigate the sustainability of their projects. They do not just go into a town, slap down a well and leave, causing more problems down the road. Water Partners makes sure that the residents of the areas they go into understand how to keep the water supply in good order and healthy before they are done. They won't do a project unless this is possible.
Partners in Health. Co-founded by Paul Farmer, whose biography Mountains Beyond Mountains has been a great source of inspiration in our home, this organization does a lot with very little to mitigate health disparities in some of the poorest parts of the world. Why should you care about health disparities? Well, I don't really want to come into contact with antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, do you?
Community Based Organizations. In San Francisco, The San Francisco Free Clinic serves uninsured residents in a nice, community setting. Impressively, they are strictly funded by private sources, and there is no purely administrative staff - all employees work directly with patients. Another vital local organization is the San Francisco Network Ministry, who provide a Safe House for Prostituted Women,* and other programs that serve our city's forgotten populations on a shoe string budget.
However, I would encourage you to donate to a community organization in your own region. To help you decide on the viablity and efficiency of the group, ask to see their annual report. Every non-profit organization with tax exempt status** must have a outside audit annually. In general, the less spent on administration, the better. (I can't believe I just said that!) I worked for many years in the non-profit arena, and I have found that health clinics, night ministries, and Boys and Girls clubs are usually your best bet if you want to donate on a local level and have just a few dollars make a real difference.
*A few years ago, I had the privellege to meet and talk with Reverend Hope, and we spoke about the difference between a woman who works in the sex industry and a woman who is exploited in the sex industry - yes, Virginia, there are shades of gray, and this organization knows that. Pimps, real pimps, the kind that feed off of other's weaknesses, are bad, m'kay?
**In the United States, that is!