How to Find Money for Charity

When my husband and I both worked, I was into instant-gratification charity. I remember reading the newspaper at my desk one morning and seeing a child the same age as my daughter on the front page. My daughter was a healthy toddler, but this little girl was emaciated, no bigger than an infant, and could not lift her head.

She was in Sudan, so I logged right onto Unicef's Web site from my office computer and made a credit card donation. If I donated my take-home pay from that one day, I could then go about my work without feeling too bad about the horrible inequity of a world that allowed my child to enjoy a nice lunch with her even nicer nanny while this other kid went hungry and suffered. Never mind that random small gifts are not the most effective way to support the charity of your choice, as Philip Brewer explained in his recent post.

Now that we are a family of four living on just one income, it takes more planning to find a little extra to share. Here are 10 ways to find at least one charitable donation for the year:

1) Pay on the installment plan.

Lots of charities, such as my steady Eddie, Chicago Public Radio, will take an annual gift in regular payroll deductions. A $120 gift then becomes 12 barely noticeable payments of $10.

2) Add an extra "person" to your holiday gift list.

If a new person joins your family, there is no question that you will somehow find the cash to give them a holiday gift. Either you add a little more to your budget, or everyone else gets a slightly smaller gift, and no one suffers in the end. You can add your favorite charity to your list in the same way. This technique is most
intuitive when participating in Toys for Tots or some other children's gift program, but you can use it for anything.

3) Gift donations.

Now, this is tricky. Since most Americans already have too much stuff in their houses, and so many Christmas presents end up in the back of the closet, giving donations can be a good gifting strategy. But you can actually be selfish even while giving if you announce to everyone on your list that you've donated to your own favorite charity in each of their names. Charitable donations as gifts go over best if you:

a) Take time to choose a cause that will resonate with the recipient. For instance, my husband would be delighted if someone donated to the Electronic Frontier Foundation in his honor, but if your uncle's an executive at one of the companies sued by this organization, he'd likely be unenchanted by the same gift.

b) Find out if your recipient is going to get deluged with requests for more money after your gift, and try to prevent this from happening.

c) Consider whether your gift will honestly be appreciated. A fresh-out-of-college niece who really needs cookware or a child may not feel so merry if all they get is a slip of paper. Pairing a modest gift with a donation could solve this problem.

4) Start a new holiday tradition.

This year I'm going to help my older daughter choose a recipient of a charitable gift, something I'd like to continue with my kids as they grow. I think we'll appreciate these memories as fondly as we'd remember an annual holiday tea at Chicago's Drake Hotel ($29.95) or tickets to The Nutcracker.

For your extended family, if everyone's into it, you could even replace the annual gift exchange with charitable donations.

5) Make rules.

At our house, anytime we win money, it goes into our daughters' college fund. Not the best educational planning, I admit, but it's better than nothing. You could apply the same rule to charity. Or, if you receive an annual bonus at the end of the year, earmark a portion of it for philanthropy.

6) Clean house.

Prosperous families need to streamline annually anyway to avoid turning their home into a junk warehouse like this one featured on today's Oprah. A good way to kick
off the holiday season is a clean-out day where everyone -- including and especially the kids -- chooses items to either donate directly to a charity shop or to sell to raise money for a donation.
My husband practices a version of this strategy throughout the year. Whenever he sells something online, the money goes to his PayPal account. Rather than bothering
to have PayPal cut him a check, he transfers the proceeds at the end of the year to is favorite charity.

7) Develop a just-for-charity income stream.

So you put ads on your blog and -- if you're like me -- are depressed by the rate at which the proceeds trickle in. The whole thing might turn from a downer to a
source of cheer if you watch your earnings oh-so-gradually grow over the course of the year, and then donate it all to a worthy charity.

Kids, too, can find ways to earn a little money for charity through crafts or other business endeavors. Remember Alex's lemonade stand?

8) Take advantage of matching gifts.

Whatever you can scrape together can go farther if your employer matches employee donations. Find out.

9) Donate something other than money.

Gift cards, frequent flyer miles, food from your cupboard, even your newspaper subscription while you're on vacation -- you might have more untapped value sitting
around than you realize. If you're thinking about donating a car, make sure you thoroughly investigate the organization first.

10) The pickle jar.

Maybe you've been lucky enough to get forwarded that chestnut about the dad who saves his quarters in a pickle jar for his son's college education. When I was growing up, my dad saved his quarters for Vegas. At any rate, the same strategy can be used to gather an annual donation. When you're cleaning out the pickle jar, don't forget to also look for coins in your couch cushions, laundry area, car, pockets, etc.

This is Angelica Joy Fabroa of the Philippines after her cleft palate surgery paid for by donors to The Smile Train. Makes all that scrounging seem worthwhile, no?


Additional photo credit: The Smile Train
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Philip Brewer's picture

Don't forget that donating your time is always an option worth considering. It's a way to help that doesn't take any money.

Guest's picture

Using Goodsearch instead of google can add up for your charity, and they've just added "Goodshop" as well. Goodsearch gives 1 cent per search (roughly), and Goodshop means certain online stores donate a percentage of sales. And it doesn't cost you anything!

Guest's picture

P.S. - Goodsearch website is

Guest's picture
Cindy M

I personally think it's far, far better to give locally and give of yourself. Best to join a local church and become more personally involved and to be certain the one in need is getting the bucks. I'm amazed that people will see some picture of a child in need in some hole of the wall country and immediately get their charge plate out. Or run to China to adopt a child when there's more than likely a child very close by in just as great a need and who's dying for that kind of attention. We are a strange people in this country. Big hearts maybe but so temporary. We throw bucks at stuff to make ourselves feel better for the moment.

Guest's picture

One of the best way for organisations to fundraise - and for donors to give - is to embed donating into an activity already part of your daily routine.

Given the ubiquity of the internet, switching to a charity search engine can raise funds for your favourite cause easily and without actually costing any money - so if you want to make a separate donatation, you can give twice over!

[Disclosure: I'm CEO of the charity search engine,]

Hope that helps!

Guest's picture

I love this post. It has many good ideas. I'd like to share some thoughts.

Many types of support While money doesn't solve every problem, for most nonprofits, donations are what keep the lights on and the doors open - not volunteering your time or passing along used things.

Workplace Giving Workplace giving not only allows me to access my employer match, it spurs me to give more. Every year we review our giving choices in light of our values. We go online to learn more about the organizations in the campaign and their management practices (www.guidestar is one source for this info). We planfully increase our gifts. This allows us to say no to organizations that are less in line with our values and minimizes guilt.

Charity and Justice Because we take a planful approach, we mix our giving - local and international, money and time, charity and justice. Charity is a short-term solution and it's essential to improve the lives of individuals, but only justice creates change.

Smile Train is one of my favorite charities - my own child had cleft lip.
So I know the impact it can have and I know that cleft lip can be caused by environmental pollution. I give money to Smile Train because it provides life-changing surgery one child at a time. But I'd rather not see children born deformed so I also give money to organizations that challenge polluters and empower local communities to seek environmental justice.

Thinking in terms of both charity and justice is one way we strive to be effective givers.