If you’re like me, it was easy to be overwhelmed with solicitations for financial support from worthy nonprofit organizations, especially at year-end. Here are some decision-making guides I’ve used over the years. And I try to think of the tax deductibility of my gifts as an added bonus, not a primary motivation. The real key to long-term success and satisfaction is to give to organizations whose mission you believe in and where you can make a difference.
It’s always a good idea to check with your accountant or financial planner about the advisability of and strategies for charitable giving. If you have recently had a major life event, such as selling a home or business or receiving an inheritance, you may be in a position to give more or give differently than in the past.
Ask yourself the two key questions. What’s my realistic budget for charitable contributions? And, given my current and likely future available resources, where do I think I can make the greatest impact?
Make gifts that satisfy both your heart and your head. Figure out what really inspires you and commit to giving most generously there. You’ll be far more invested in their success if you pick the right partners — those aligned with your passions.
Don’t wait for organizations (and causes) to find you. Do some homework to evaluate the vision and effectiveness of groups you are considering, and then connect with them in ways that make the most sense.
Determine the best sources of information. Charity Navigator and GuideStar are two readily accessible online sources of intelligence about the structure and performance of many nonprofit organizations, but they do not evaluate and rate everyone. Ask trusted experts about what groups are really doing the best work on multiple measures: breadth and depth of effective services, financial management, leadership, innovation, community support and involvement, sustainability, diversity, etc.
Leverage your resources. There are many simple ways to make your money go further. For example, consider making a match challenge to other people who care about the same things you do. Speaking of matches, does your employer have a program through which your personal charitable contribution will be matched? If not, perhaps you can propose to start one. And investigate how “aggregators” such as community foundations can effectively pool donor dollars to increase the number and size of grants, scholarships and other forms of support.
Fewer may be better. As the old saying goes, if you’re thirsty, it’s better to fill up a few cups than put one drop in a thousand. You’ll achieve the greatest satisfaction and return on investment with deeper, longer-term commitments, not with a flavor-of-the-month approach. If you have a solid giving strategy in place, it’s much more reasonable to decline opportunities that don’t fit the profile.
Involve family members. Let others close to you offer input on what causes and groups are most important to them. Also, consider creating fun and meaningful family volunteer activities such as a nonprofit facility clean-up day or a holiday food drive.
Honor those you care about. Rather than giving “stuff” as presents, sometimes a more meaningful gift is a charitable contribution in someone’s name — to a charity they care about, not just one of your favorites.
Contribute things other than money. Time, talent, treasure — everyone has some of each. Once you’ve identified what you want to support, constantly inventory what you have to give that matches up best with what’s needed. In addition to cash, you may want to join a nonprofit’s board of directors; host a get-to-know brunch for potential donors or similar effort.
Think outside the “collection box.” Many organizations, religious and secular alike, rely on donors who commit to making regular contributions. But, every once in a while, it’s good to check around and see if there are emerging groups meeting new and more critical needs.
Get help when you need it. If doing all the research and legwork associated with managing a solid charitable giving program seems daunting — especially when you have a busy life — think about establishing a fund through The Oregon Community Foundation. It’s an easy way to do your giving and OCF has helped many people make this a great place to live and work.
One final thought. Some donors allow for recognition of their gifts in order to lend public support to an organization and invite others to do the same, while others feel that the most rewarding gifts are made anonymously. It’s your choice!
— Rebecca B. Smith of Medford is a volunteer with The Oregon Community Foundation.