Wreathes and trees are sprucing up our neighborhood. Christmas lights shine out from apartment windows. The Hanukkah candles have been lit and extinguished, and Salvation Army bell ringers seem to be following us wherever we go. Yes, December is upon us.
For many, this month marks the season of giving – and not just because of the holidays. With the close of the calendar year comes our last chance to make tax-deductible charitable contributions in 2015.
By now, you’ve probably been inundated with mailings and emails from organizations vying for your attention. They’re hoping you’ll make one more gift before the ball drops, and, if they’re lucky, upgrade your gift amount since the last time you gave. Organizations you’ve never heard of are coming out of the woodwork too, including you in their year-end efforts to scoop up some new donors while everyone’s in the giving spirit.
If you’re philanthropically inclined, you’re probably ready to whip out your credit card… but also wondering how you can make the biggest impact. Some people might think there’s no “wrong” way to make a contribution… just like there’s no “wrong” way to give a holiday gift. It’s the thought that counts! Right?
Well, for every faked, “Wow! Thank you!” directed towards a well meaning but terribly misguided relative wielding Donald Trump’s autobiography, I say, “No, Virginia. Not all charitable gifts are created equal.”
So how can you be sure to give your best gift this year?
First things first, before you make your year-end contributions, double check with your employer as to whether they match contributions to 501(c)(3) organizations. You may be surprised, because not all businesses boast about this fantastic perk. Some may require a bit of paperwork to be filled out, while others just require you to submit proof of your contribution so they can match it up to a designated dollar amount. This step will literally allow you to do twice as much good this holiday season!
Next, choose wisely. There are thousands of deserving organizations out there and countless dedicated individuals working tirelessly towards their missions. No matter what you’re passionate about, there’s a nonprofit advancing that cause. But it can be hard to pick just the right organization to support. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
If you don’t know where to begin, consider supporting organizations close by. Depending on the issues closest to your heart, you’re likely to find organizations of regional, national, and even international scope doing great work. One of the benefits of supporting local organizations is that you’re physically closer to their work and are more likely to have the opportunity to see the difference your support is making up close.
As someone who works with more than 40 different regional nonprofits, I can tell you that the impact of local charities can be incredibly powerful. Another benefit? It’s simpler to get to know the folks in charge and the people/animals/environment/etc. that are being served by the organization. This makes it easier to see if the organization is achieving the kind of impact you had hoped for – and get more involved if you wish.
Don’t fall prey to the overhead myth. For a while now, many people have been caught up in the idea that a “high” overhead percentage (note – this is a very subjective amount) means a nonprofit isn’t doing a good job. After all, it’s a charity! What do they need all that money for?
Well, lots of things. They can’t very well work long hours without paying the electricity bill, or create an effective workplace without paying a decent amount in rent, or retain the talent it takes to create lasting change without compensating people appropriately. One of my favorites is when people get outraged that a nonprofit CEO is making six figures. It’s as if some people assume that this work should be done for free, and the C-level executives entrusted with solving some of the most challenging issues of our day (homelessness, feeding the hungry, ending animal abuse…) can survive off the feeling of “doing good” alone.
There is so much more to say about this particular topic, but as you’re deciding where to make your year-end gifts, please don’t opt for the organizations with the lowest overhead based on that criteria alone. Know that doing important work is also costly, and if you have concerns about a nonprofit’s expenses ask questions to better understand whether their investment is facilitating change or not.
Look for organizations that make a habit of reporting back. Whether it’s a small local group or a massive international nonprofit, it’s important to find an organization that has made reporting back to their supporters a priority. Scope out the organization’s websites and social media presence to see how often they talk about their latest work and achievements. Not only will this give you a sense of their latest mission-related priorities, but it can indicate how critical it is to them to update their supporters.
Once you’ve decided where to make your gift, make your contribution in the way you’d ideally like the organization to communicate with you. If you’re more a digital donor than a snail mail supporter, make your gift online. But if you really look forward to your daily USPS delivery, mail in a check. Nonprofits that have the ability are going to take note of your donation preferences and communicate with you via the media channel you prefer.
When you’re making that gift, make it an unrestricted one if you can. If you’ve read this much, it’s clear you’re committed to doing good. You’re not any old donor swayed by just an emotional appeal for support or a sheet of personalized address labels. You want to bolster the efforts of nonprofits who need dedicated supporters to do that work… and that means you trust them to put your donation toward the areas that need the funding the most.
Many organizations will allow you to specify which program or initiative you want your gift to go towards when you make a contribution. But the holy grail of donations is unrestricted gifts that nonprofits can use on whatever they decide. This is because oftentimes when organizations receive large gifts or grants, they come with strings attached. Often that money can only be used in specific ways or for particular initiatives… which can leave other critical areas of work underfunded. Now, by all means, if you feel very strongly about a particular program and it’s the only work you want to support – make a restricted gift. But if you can, give the gift of flexible funding and check the box that says, “Use my gift wherever it’s needed most”.
Finally, when the holidays are over and the dust settles, consider making a New Year’s resolution that will make a difference… by becoming a monthly donor.
Monthly donors are the type of supporters nonprofits work desperately to attract. Why? Just like we all enjoy the predictability of a regular paycheck to cover our costs, nonprofits long for the steady flow of contributions that monthly donors provide. Even small gifts of $10 a month add up over the course of the year, and they enable nonprofits to plan ahead better by knowing they can count on your continued support.
And there are benefits for you, too. When you start making monthly gifts, the organization will take you out of most solicitation mailings and emails where they ask for contributions (note – every nonprofit has different procedures but this is a best practice most organizations follow). They will keep you on the list to receive things like newsletters, informational updates, and the occasional appeal for a special one-time gift, though, so you can stay abreast of their work and celebrate the achievements you helped to make possible.
It may be a balmy 57 degrees in DC today, but there’s no denying that the most wonderful time of the year is here. This year, I hope you’re able to support a nonprofit whose mission you care about. There are many things we can do over the course of the year to make this world a better place (here’s a wonderful list from the Washington Post if you need inspiration!) but capping off 2015 by making a contribution to a charity working on positive change will leave you feeling like a million bucks. ‘Tis the season!