Manage your charitable giving
Are you one of the people who responds to begging letters from national charitable organizations by occasionally sending money? I used to do that. In my case, it was mostly environmental organizations that I'd send money to. I'd send $20 or $35, depending on what I could afford. The problem is, that's a terrible way to support a charity.
Have you ever noticed what happens if you send money in response to a mail or telephone solicitation? You start getting more solicitations--and not just from the charity that you donated to, but from a dozen other related charities.
Give to the National Wildlife Federation and in just a few weeks you'll have begging letters from the Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and five more environmental groups that come out of the woodwork asking for money.
Give to Doctors without Borders and in no time you'll have Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and any number of other human rights organizations sending begging letters.
It's not that there's a problem with any of these organizations. The point is that it's a terribly inefficient way for you to use your charitable giving dollar. Responding to whatever begging letter catches your eye when you happen to have a few dollars to spare encourages all these organizations to spend a bunch of extra money designing more eye-catching letters and to send them more often, which just wastes their time and money, your time and money, and the paper and fuel needed to print and deliver the letters.
Far better to have a plan about where your charitable dollars should go.
First, think about what you want to support. You've got limited resources, so you obviously can't support everything. If you've got just a little money, maybe it should all go one place. If you've got a bit more, maybe you can support several. But don't imagine that you do more good sending $10 to ten different organizations than you do sending $100 to one.
What should you think about? Here are a few ideas:
- Where is the need the greatest?
- How can I do the most good?
- Where can I make a difference?
- What are the biggest problems?
- What are the most urgent problems?
When I get that far, I like to split the problem in half by deciding up front that I'll support some local charity and some national or international charity. It's not that the problems are greatest in my own home town--clearly there are more people suffering in Africa than in Champaign--and it's not that "charity begins at home," but that with the local charities I can be more sure that I'm actually helping. It may not be the most charitable thing I could do, but I find knowing that I'm helping matters. It may not matter as much as actually helping does, but it matters.
Mainly, though, think about where your passion lies. Health? Poverty? Education? Hunger? Conservation? What do you care enough about to commit to making a difference?
Next is to investigate what your charitable options are. You can start with the begging letters that you get. Over the course of the year, open the begging letters, take out the calendars and return address labels and postcards and bumper stickers, and then file the actual letter that says what they do, together with the information on how to send in a donation. Late in the year, go through that file and pull out the names of the organizations that intrigue you.
Many people donate through religious organizations--a combination of a local church and a denominational service organization with national or international reach is worth considering.
Do a little research. Google the organizations and see what they say they do--and see what people say about them. It's not really practical to investigate their finances too deeply, but it's pretty easy to spot the out-and-out scam charities--the ones with a name similar to a legitimate charity, but that spend most of their money on fundraising and give only a token amount to their programs.
There are also sites specifically for investigating charities. Charity Navigator, for example, gives charities star ratings, and reports on their efficiency in turning donations into spending on their programs.
Do some research entirely on your own. Look to see if there's some obscure organization whose mission matches your interests very closely. There are great organizations that don't do mass mail fundraising.
The first step in deciding is to budget for charitable giving. The need, of course, is infinite. You probably want to give something, or you wouldn't have read this far. Somewhere between zero and the combined net worth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet is what you want to give. The average American household gives about 3.1% of their income to charity.
The second step is allocating it to the organizations you've investigated. Don't spread the money around too much--far better to give a useful amount to one or two organizations than a trivial amount to several.
Many organizations let you assign your gift to some specific part of their mission--disaster relief for one specific region, for example. Although that's tempting, you should probably resist, unless you're donating such a large amount that you could be funding whole programs. Most charities take the wishes of their donors very seriously, and they will try to fulfill your wish, but unless you've picked the wrong charity, they know where the need is better than you do. In general, you'll do the most good by picking a charity that works in the area you care about, and then letting the charity decide how best to put the money to work.
Some people like to donate a bit each month, or even through a payroll deduction, because it makes it painless. If you can commit to putting the money aside over the course of the year and then sending it out all at once, it make the process cheaper for the charity, and more efficient for you (in terms of check-writing and record-keeping).
I wrote earlier about using donor-advised funds to get the advantages of a private foundation without the paperwork. That's an especially good option for people whose budget for giving isn't stable from year to year.
There are ways to give that don't involve money, of course.
Volunteering is always good. There are very few charities that won't welcome with open arms anyone willing to commit to helping advance their mission. A few hours a year will make a difference. A few hours a week will make a vast difference.
In-kind contributions are only occasionally useful. If you own a paint store and let the local Boys and Girls Club know that you'll provide supplies to paint their building, that's useful. If, on the other hand, if you hear that there's no safe drinking water in East Nowheresville due to flooding, don't expect that lugging a 12-pack of water bottles to your Red Cross office is going to help.
Targeting your gifts to organizations that you select because you've done some research and support their mission is far more effective than haphazardly sending checks off to groups that happen to ask when you happen to have money. There's a little extra effort involved on your part, but your cash will do a lot more good. It's worth taking the time to make a plan.
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