gift guide: a charitable giving primer.

charitable_gifts_reading_my_tea_leaves_img_5794Many people feel especially motivated to lend a helping hand around the holiday season and for some folks, that might mean taking a look at their coffers (or skill sets) to see who else they might be able to reach with thoughtful donations of money or time to good causes at the end of the year. This year, James and I have decided to take a look at the spending that we’ve done on family Christmas presents over the past few years (we keep a spreadsheet to keep track of costs and remember what we’ve given in years past!) and instead of giving traditional presents this year, we’re donating the majority of the same funds we might have otherwise spent on gifts for ourselves and our family members to charities that we believe in. We’ll still offer something small and simple for family to open on Christmas morning, but we’ll also be making cards letting folks know that we’ve given a gift to a charity in their name.

In case you’re looking for ways to make a difference this holiday season (and in advance of Giving Tuesday tomorrow!), I thought it might be helpful to publish a charitable gift giving primer. Consider it a starter guide to putting hard earned money (or skills!) to use for causes you care about. 

What’s a charity and how does it work?

Charities (nonprofits) work in a number of ways. For instance, nonprofits that you might consider supporting for Giving Tuesday might focus on advocacy (to change public opinion, practices and laws), direct services (like providing legal services for refugees), or research (climate change, disease, etc.) and lots of organizations work across these three main areas.

Who should I donate to?

Deciding what kind of charity to support is a deeply personal matter. In the current political climate, you may decide to support causes that are most likely to suffer from the change in administration. For example, organizations that support:

+ Human rights – especially those that advocate for LGBTQ, Muslim, black, and Latino communities

+ Women’s health and empowerment

+ Free press

+ Immigration issues

+ Refugees

+ Environment

That said, it’s probably most important to identify a cause that is meaningful to you and that you are willing to support over the long-term. Other noble causes you might consider could include:

+ Veterans

+ Arts and humanities

+ Scientific and medical research

+ Hunger and homelessness

+ Animal welfare

+ Education and job preparedness 

What are the best practices when choosing and giving to a specific charity?

+ Give from the heart: Choose a cause that is important to you and will likely remain a priority. One-off donations in response to a crisis, like natural disasters, are important, but your money will have the biggest impact if you concentrate your giving on one or two organizations and continue to support them over time.

+ Do your research: Check an organization’s rating and details on their spending and results on sites like Charity Navigator or GuideStar. That said, don’t discount organizations that are not rated, especially local or newer nonprofits. Charity Navigator provides solid guidance on how to conduct due diligence on unrated organizations. 

+ Donate unrestricted funds: Donate to organizations that you trust to use your donation wisely, and then let them decide how the money would best be deployed. Earmarking funds for specific programs means none of it can be used to cover essentials like office space, software, fundraising, and communications. This isn’t sexy stuff, but an organization can’t do good work without investing in their infrastructure, too. It’s important to note that nonprofits are often judged on the percentage of funding they spend on programs versus overhead (this is called their overhead ratio). Overhead is the cost of running an organization, like office space, staff training, and the accounting and fundraising software they need to raise and keep track of donations (!). Most people in the nonprofit sector agree that overhead ratio is not a good measure of an organization’s effectiveness. In fact, the three leading organizations that collect and analyze information on nonprofits in the US all recommend that overhead ratio not be used as a metric for assessing organizations you might want to support. Keep in mind that in order to do good work, an organization needs to invest in its staff and its infrastructure—and that all falls under the umbrella of overhead spending!

+ Make your donation a monthly one: Monthly donations help organizations plan their budgets for the year. If you have a total amount in mind, consider dividing it by 12 and make your donation a recurring one. (NB: Some organizations have a monthly minimum of $5 or $10, so this might only apply to folks who are able to donate $60 or $120 or more!).

+ Double up: Ask if your employer has a corporate matching policy for donations. Some companies will match their employees’ contributions, thereby doubling your impact. If you don’t work for a large corporation, consider setting up a similar matching campaign with your own family members. You might be able to drastically improve your reach if you make a family-wide giving plan.

Okay, and what if I don’t have any money to give? What else can I give besides cash?

+ Time: Volunteering at an organization can be as helpful as giving funds. As with cash donations, do your research and make sure the organization is a good fit for your personally. Much like with monthly monetary donations, consider a regular volunteering commitment as opposed to helping at a one-time event. Charity Navigator has a good guide to volunteering.

+ Voice: Speak up! If you support an organization (by donating, volunteering, or even if you just think they’re up to something great), talk about it. Post about it on social media and provide a link to the organization’s donation page. Mention to your friends and family how it feels to donate or volunteer and why you do it. This kind of verbal chatter and endorsement can go a long way toward encouraging other folks to get active.

+ Skills: Are you a graphic artist? You could help a nonprofit develop eye-catching communications materials they might otherwise not be able to afford. Are you a programmer? You could design a new website for a local nonprofit. Are you a really great writer? You could help an organization raise money by helping them work on a grant application. If you’re not sure how to start, Taproot Foundation is a great place for connecting people willing to provide pro bono services with nonprofits looking for help.

+ Stuff (aka noncash items): In most cases, it is better to provide money than to provide goods. That said, local organizations, in particular, may have a need for specific items. Make sure that what you’re able to offer is a good match for what an organization needs. Homeless shelters and food pantries, for example, have limited storage and limited ability to sort through donations (and it costs them money to store, sort and distribute donated goods!). Check websites and make phone calls before dropping off donations and resist the urge to donate items that haven’t been specifically requested. Instead, you might consider selling items and donating the money earned from the sale instead. Charity Navigator has a helpful guide to noncash donations, too.

charitable_gifts_reading_my_tea_leaves_img_5808I need specifics! Who should I give my time or money to?

While I wouldn’t want to make these decisions for you, if you’re feeling stumped, here’s a (very much) non-exhaustive list of organizations working harder than ever to provide services and programs to folks in need:

+ American Civil Liberties Union: A national nonprofit working in “courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”

+ Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): A nonprofit with a mission to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”

+ EarthJustice: A nonprofit, public interest law organization that “wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to preserve the wild, to fight for healthy communities, and to advance clean energy to promote a healthy climate.”

+ Human Rights Campaign: A nonprofit civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality.

+ Mother Jones: A reader-supported, nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent and investigative journalism.

+ National Immigration Forum: A nonprofit advocating for the value of immigrants and immigration to the United States.

+ National Resources Defense Council: An environmental nonprofit with a mission to “safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.” They fulfill their mission through members, lawyers, policy advocates, and scientists.

+ Planned Parenthood: A women’s health nonprofit providing reproductive health services, advocating public policies that support those rights, providing educational programs on human sexuality, and promoting research and technological advancement in reproductive health care.

+ ProPublica: An independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to producing investigative journalism in the public interest.

+ Southern Poverty Law Center: A nonprofit “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” They pursue their mission through litigation, education, and advocacy.

+ Women’s Refugee Commission: A nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives and protecting the rights of women, children, and youth displaced by conflict and crisis.

Please feel free to share your own plans for giving or specific nonprofits that you already support in the comments section!

Special thanks to Allison Zimmerman Chadha for the invaluable research she contributed to this post.