The holidays are by far my favorite time of the year. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, I relish getting to take some vacation from the daily grind, spend time with my family and eat amazing food. In addition to the holiday festivities, I enjoy the fact that this time of year many people turn their attention toward charitable giving. For those of you in that mindset, I’ve compiled three key questions to consider to make the most out of your giving.
To me, this question is the most important. When Ben and I first started giving to charity on a regular basis, I really wanted to know the rationale for giving. It sounds like a strange question, but I wanted to make sure that I gave “for the right reasons.”
I ended up asking a lot of people in my life – family, friends, coworkers – why they give. And of course, I got a variety of answers. Some people give because their parents always have, others give because their religion asks them to, and others still because they just feel the need to help.
When deciding for myself, the rationale that rang most true was giving to provide opportunities for those around me. I have benefited from many caring people who have given me the tools and opportunities to better my life. Consequently, I want to pay it forward for those around me. So whether it’s feeding the poor, funding AIDS research or fighting for equal rights, my giving strives to empower others. And to me, that’s money well spent.
You shouldn’t just abstractly think about this question. Write down your answers, ask people around you and take the time to really understand why giving is important to you.
Where to Give?
This question is tricky because there are sooooo many charities. And especially in the wake of tragedies, many con artists pray on the generosity of others to profit from horrific events. I’ve also heard horror stories of gross mismanagement of funds for some legitimate charities.
An obvious starting point is choosing a cause that you feel passionate about. I chose one that was money related (modestneeds.org), food related (chicagosfoodbanks.org), and relief related (redcross.org).
After choosing the charities, I researched each organization on the Charity Navigator website. The site evaluates and rates different charities. It also provides in-depth analysis of the charity’s budget, so you know exactly how the organization spends the money you donate.
You can also check out the IRS Exempt Organization Select Check site for eligible charities (search tip: search by EIN). I eventually narrowed my choice to the Greater Chicago Food Depository since it’s a local organization, spends its money efficientl, and benefits a large amount of people.
Again, writing down these answers and discussing them with others will help make this process a lot easier for you. But don’t forget to do your own research.
How much to give?
The personal-finance nerd in me wanted to know a specific number that was standard to donate. I thought it would be easier to create space in my budget if I had a percentage of my income to build from.
I again looked to the web and asked my friends and family. And again, I got a wide variety of answers: some people gave 1% of their gross income, others 10% of their net, and others just gave sporadically. Even our government leadership varied widely. According to the Obamas’ 2015 tax returns, they gave almost 14.7% of their adjusted gross income to charity versus 1.8% for the Bidens.
Since I couldn’t find a standard amount of giving, I started with how much I could afford while still meeting my living expenses and savings goals. From there, I adjusted my other expenses to meet an amount I considered reasonable for charitable giving.
You will have to find what works with your budget. It will likely vary from year-to-year, given what budgeting goals you focus on. I suggest even starting with something small ($5 a month?) just to get into the habit of giving.
Other Best Practices
When you give, you should employ a few other best practices:
- Don’t give personal information: A charity won’t ask for personal information like your Social Security Number or passwords to online accounts. Avoid any solicitations asking for information of that sort.
- Don’t give or send cash: For security and tax record purposes, you need to have a paper trail of how you gave your gift and who you gave it to.
- Pay close attention the name of the charity: Bogus websites may solicit funds for victims of this tragedy, by mimicking the name and sites of legitimate charities.
- Concentrate your giving. Once you have found the charity that you like, giving your support just to that organization allows them more of opportunity to make substantive change.
As I learned, figuring out charitable gifts is a personal endeavor. But I urge you to really consider why, where, and how much to give rather than giving blindly. This type of focused giving will serve both you and your cause more effectively. I’ve also written about how giving can save you money that can also help make charity a win-win.