Thursday, December 9, 2010

Giving - during the "Season of Giving"

After my first trip to Africa, I got a lot more serious about giving to charities.  I realized that, even if my student loans were not all paid, my retirement account not fully funded, my savings goals not yet fully realized, etc., etc., etc. - by living in America I have advantages that millions of people in the world will never have.  So do you.  Even if you are not wealthy, you have so much more than so many.  Giving a few dollars really does matter.  And, we tend to take things for granted like running water, electricity, etc. that so many people don't have.  Not to mention access to medical care, etc. Americans truly have amazing opportunity - and so do most people in other developed countries.  It's easy to forget how privileged we are.  When I went and saw people living where there were no jobs, no infrastructure, no banking system, no access to credit, no clean water, no housing, no food - people laying by the side of the road, erecting sticks and paper as shelters from the sun or rain, or just laying there because they had nothing else to do and no food and no energy (and sometimes no clothing), it changed my perspective - permanently.

I used to give to charities now and then when I got a solicitation, but I didn't investigate them that carefully or give that much.  I didn't think about my overall goals and what I wanted to support.  So when I got back from my first trip to Africa, I sat down an evaluated what I wanted my contributions to go towards, and developed a plan to free up some money for charitable contributions (canceled magazine subscriptions, canceled my cable package, etc.).  Originally I picked 12 charities and gave to one a month, a set amount I freed up to make available for contributions.  Eventually I modified that plan so that I have a few charities I give to every month, and several others that I give to annually pr bi-annually, depending on finances.

I research charities as well, to ensure that they are using their funds for the cause, not salaries and marketing, etc.  Although there are some causes I really believe in, some of the charities that aim to further that cause are not worthy of a contribution because they are too disorganized or inefficient.  It does matter;  every dollar counts and how it is used matters because you want the maximum amount to go to what you care about, not 10 cents out of every dollar you give.

If you want to research charities, there are a few good sites to do so.  I like Charity Navigator best.  However, you might get additional information from Give.org, the Better Business Bureau's website to evaluate charities.  Another evaluator is Guidestar.  In addition to researching how they use the money, I determine whether a charity has a privacy policy so they don't share my address if I ask them not to.  Otherwise, you get 5,000 solicitations from every charity in the universe.

For me, wildlife and the preservation and conservation of wildlife is my top priority.  Along with that is the need to preserve wildlife corridors and natural lands in their natural state - conserving rainforests, protecting biodiversity, protecting the oceans, allowing wildlife to migrate and reach other breeding populations, preventing development of natural resources so that some remain protected.  Another goal is promoting animal welfare and moving towards better treatment of animals, including promotion of spay and neuter programs, animal rescue and welfare groups, and groups that assist animals in emergency situations.  There are always going to be people who are helping other people - but sometimes the animals get forgotten.  They are my priority.  That being said, I also think the most vulnerable humans on the planet need and deserve assistance.  I am not very sympathetic for those who have had opportunities they have thrown away, so personally I prefer to focus on those who suffer due to circumstances beyond their control, and those who need aid most and are most often ignored.  I selected a few charities that I think do a good job of targeting the world's most vulnerable people and assisting in a meaningful way.  Also, personally, I refuse to give to any charity which is religiously affiliated, as I have observed far too much waste in many such organizations and I have found that my priorities are too divergent from theirs even if we share some common goals, in most cases.  Finally, I try to support charitable organizations that I benefit from personally by using their services (like NPR, for example).

In addition to giving monthly or annually, I revised my estate planning documents to give to charities on a larger scale, when I no longer need my assets.

I would encourage everyone to develop your own personal giving plan - even if it's only a dollar a week you can set aside - that's $52 a year you can give to a charity, and that makes a difference.  So does $25.  So does $5.  There are also ways you can make your money go a little farther, besides researching before giving.

First, ask the charity not to share your name so you are not inundated with mail, and ask them not to send you mailings either.  They generally mail asking for more money once you give - but if you tell them you will give regularly but NOT to send mail, it saves printing and mailing costs and saves you aggravating additional requests too.  Second, you can turn down the "free gifts."  They are not free and every dollar spent on them is less to spend on the cause.  Watch for charities that send you stuff you don't ask for - address labels now and then, ok, but if they are always sending you calendars, wrapping paper, other "free gifts" you didn't ask for, remember that is all money they are not spending on the cause.  Ask them not to send it and realize charities that do that are spending resources on that type of marketing so if it is excessive you might consider another charity.

Other great ways to make your contributions go farther are to watch for "matching donations" which often happen at the end of the year or at some point when the charity gets a donation for matching grants.  Many charities have a Facebook page or email list that will notify you of these options without wasting mailing costs and paper.  I like to wait to donate to the charities I give to annually until they have a matching drive and then double my contribution.  Many employers also have matching grants to certain charities, so especially if you work for a large company, look into that.  You can also shop online by linking through Goodshop or igive, which donates a portion of your purchase to the charity of your choice.  Many sites also offer search engines that give one cent per search to charity.  And of course, many charities offer a credit card that a portion goes to the charity rather than miles or cash back for you.

Aside from outright donations, there are other things you can do to give.  You can ask that donations to your favorite charity be made in your name instead of birthday, holiday or wedding gifts.  You can suggest that your office donate to a charity rather than spend money on a holiday party - donate to a cause you agree eon instead and have a potluck celebration on the cheap.  Donate your unwanted items to a charity.

When you travel you can pay attention to ensure you are supporting local jobs where you are going and that your travel company is environmentally responsible.  Many international flights allow you 70lb of checked luggage at no charge but you often can't take or don't need that much on your journey, so take extra supplies to donate to the local Red Cross or other charity int he country you are going to.  You can easily donate 40lb of used clothing or medical supplies this way.  Responsible travel companies will help you and facilitate your donation to a local worthy charity at your destination.

There has to be at least one cause you really believe in.  So even if you only start with one -start somewhere!  Almost every American can afford to give at least a little something, and there are millions in the world who have nothing to give.

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