Tuesday, November 30, 2010

GIVE SMART - three ideas for making your charitable donations count

A lot of us don't have as much disposable income as we had two or three years ago. Some of us have a lot less. But Christmas is coming, and we still want to give. "It is more blessed to give than to receive," Jesus said (Acts 20:35). Giving makes us feel rich.

Giving is up in 2010, and for that we rejoice. But, warns an article in yesterday's Business Wire, "the small rebound hasn’t been enough to help many nonprofits that are grappling with staff and service cuts even as demand for their services has increased."

It would be great if we could give more. Some of us, if we're honest with ourselves, could do just that. Most of us, though, could give smarter.

How can we make our donations do the most good? Here are three suggestions.

1. Check out charities before donating.
Some charities are outright scams. Some are woefully mismanaged. Even ethical charities differ in their effectiveness - that is, in their ability to get our money to the people we're hoping to help. Before writing those checks, go to Charity Navigator and search for your favorite charities. Beware of any organization that rates less than three stars.

If you have time, browse the website. The top ten lists are especially interesting: for example, "10 Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities" and "10 of the Best Charities Everyone's Heard Of." Or look through the entire list of 1770 (as of today) four-star charities.

Charity Navigator does not cover all charities, however. Some excellent not-for-profit organizations fall outside their specifications. If you are interested in a charity that is not listed there, check it out some other way. GuideStar offers information (including tax returns) on a wide range of charities. MinistryWatch profiles and rates primarily Christian ministries and charitable organizations. Or check out Charity Navigator's article, "6 Questions to Ask Charities Before Donating."

2. Give bigger checks to fewer charities.
If you're used to contributing to several charities, it feels somehow wrong to take several off the list. But $1000 given to one charity does more good than $100 given to ten charities, and $100 given to one charity is more effective than $10 given to ten charities. Number 9 on Charity Navigator's "Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors" is this: Concentrate your giving. They explain:
When it comes to financial investments, diversification is the key to reducing risk. The opposite is true for philanthropic investments. If you've really taken the time to identify a well-run charity that is engaged in a cause that you are passionate about, you should then feel confident in giving it a donation. Spreading your money among multiple organizations not only results in your mail box filling up with more appeals, it also diminishes the possibility of any of those groups bringing about substantive change as each charity is wasting a large percentage of your gift on fundraising and overhead expenses.
See, when you give a small gift, you barely pay for the expense of all those letters that start coming your way begging for more gifts. In order to make your gift profitable, many charities sell your name to other charities, who will send still more letters. Your mailbox will fill up rapidly, but not a whole lot will be accomplished for the people or organizations you are hoping to help.

By contrast, when you give a larger gift, the charity wants to hang on to you. No way will they sell the names of their top donors - why risk diluting their gifts next year? They still have to deduct marketing costs, but a lot more remains to do its intended work.

3. Turn your favorite charity into a Christmas present.
Unless you really need more books, liquor, fruitcakes, or whatever your friends tend to get you, put your favorite charity on your Amazon wish list. It's easy to do with the universal wish list button. If you want to know more about how it works for me, read my blog post from last December 1.

In addition, instead of giving friends, colleagues, and neighbors gifts that are useless or fattening, consider donating to a charity on their behalf. Be careful if you choose this approach - be sure the charity you choose is one that will also mean something to them.

This year our parish is especially concerned about a Sudanese health clinic we've been supporting. Sudan is holding an election January 9 to decide whether the southern part of the country should remain part of Sudan, or should separate and form its own independent country. The clinic is in Renk, a border town that will certainly face violence if the vote goes as expected (Aljazeera posted a fascinating article, "South Sudan braces for trouble," today; for more background information, check out my husband's interview with Geoff Tunnicliffe, "Pray for the Peace of Sudan").

Our outreach commission is collecting funds to send to the clinic before the referendum, so it can stock up on medicine and supplies before supply channels are disrupted. Because many of us are concerned about Sudan, David and I have decided to give this card to some of our friends at church and at work. It will cost us about the same as the small gifts we've given in previous years. We hope it will do more lasting good.


cindy said...

Thanks for the great reminder about Charity Navigator. It's a terrific resource, and one I recommend to my friends. It's often surprising -- and disappointing -- to see exactly how your donation is used. Some of the environmental groups are especially disappointing. I changed my giving a few years ago based on this online resource.

Ann Kroeker said...

Thanks for the suggestions, especially Charity Navigator--I'd not heard of it before, but have often thought that a site like this would be helpful.

Kathleen said...

I just checked out Charity Navigator to see if my nonprofit performing arts group, the Washington Savoyards (www.savoyards.org) is listed there. It's not and it seems that Charity Navigator concentrates on much larger organizations with much bigger budgets than a lot of nonprofits are. --Kathleen

LaVonne Neff said...

Good point, Kathleen. According to CN's website, "we evaluate only those charities that depend on support from individual givers. Specifically, we require public support to be more than $500,000 and total revenue more than $1,000,000 in the most recent fiscal year. And we do not review charities that receive most of their funding from government grants, or from the fees they charge for their programs and services." I will add a line or two to the post to make that clear.

lbbreb said...

I thought your blog on giving was very good. The only thing which jumped out at me was the info about you. You call yourself an amatuer theologian. I think that diminishes your input. I think you are a theologian--maybe not a seminary-trained theologian or a clergy theologain. One of the valuable thoughts that feminist theology offers to us is that we all theologize out of our own experience, and that theology has value!!! There is nothing amatuer about your theology or you as a theologian. Please remove that word from your blog!!!


Linda B. Brebner (Rev. Dr.)

LaVonne Neff said...

Linda, thanks for your kind comment. I think you're referring to the very short bio used by God's Politics blogs on Sojourners' website whenever they republish one of my posts. I don't use amateur in my ID on this blog, but I rather like the word. I take your point about theologians, but amateur comes from a word meaning 'lover of,' which makes me an amateur not only of theology but also of food, dogs, French, wine, travel, etc. The only reason I don't say I'm an amateur of books, which I also love, is because amateur is also used to distinguish lovers from professionals, and I've spent many years working in the publishing industry. But I'm still an amateur of literature - and I think we'd all have more fun if we spent less time on our professions and more time being amateurs!