How to Give More than Checkbook Charity

Quick question: do you long to get beyond checkbook charity? How tired are you of organizations filling your in-box with urgent pleas for money, money, and more money? Do you feel guilty for turning them down? Have you ever given more than your budget allows?

This simple two-step process puts you in charge of your charity dollars. Do this and you will live your values through your giving while staying in control of your budget. And while I’m focusing on dollar contributions in this post, this strategy works equally well for your most precious gift: the gift of your time.

Step 1: Know why you are giving.

We generally give to good causes for four broad reasons.

Social. The kid down the block is selling chocolate for summer camp. Your best friend is running in a 5K fundraiser. Your cousin invites you to a fundraising house party. These may not be our core causes but these are our people, so we give.

Emergency. Urgent disasters call for an urgent response. Hurricanes, wildfires, the refugee crisis, a friend in need or community member suffering a loss. Unexpected events call us to help. 

Personal.   Sometimes we give for our personal benefit as much as for the cause: think of the swim-a-thon that gives us a reason to get in shape or the volunteer work that gives us an opportunity to use our skills and experience. We all have reasons for giving that are mostly about us. And that's just fine.

Strategic. Strategic giving comes from both your heart and your head. Giving from the heart is a wonderful way to honor the people and institutions who have helped us along the way. Then there are causes that speak to your cherished values.  Strategic giving goes beyond mere passion to seek organizations that are making a high impact in the areas you care most about. Ask, "What are the changes I most want to see in the world? How do I believe they will come about? Where can I use my limited dollars and time to advance that change?" Focus your charity dollars on these organizations.

Step Two: Trust, but Verify the Charity

First, check for obvious scams. Charity Navigator is your go-to site to research the 1.6 million U.S. non-profits. Charity Navigator rates larger organizations, but you’ll need to dig deeper for small non-profits.  Create a free account to get access to the charity's tax return. Also check-out Great Nonprofits, which features social reviews of community organizations.

Next, check for strategic alignment of the organization's mission with your strategic giving goals. I once heard a story about a man who wanted to help find a cure for cancer, which had taken his mother. For years he gave to a fine organization, only to discover that its mission was educating about cancer, not finding a cure.  It's easy to make this mistake when giving to one organization leads to an onslaught of similar appeals. (See tools for getting off these lists here .) Ask these questions:

  • What is your geographic focus? In your local community, nation, or the world?
  • What is your impact timeline?  Is it short term (for example, meeting the immediate needs of cancer patients); middle-term (education and prevention); or long-term (research and policy change)?
  • What organizational scope matches your goal? Are you looking to fund a large organization?  Are you looking for a smaller organization that may work closer to the problem?  Or would you rather trust a federated campaign to make these decisions for you?

Bonus Points: Budget for Charity Giving

The truth is, most of us plan to budget for charity but then don’t. Here’s how to do it right.

  1. Set an annual dollar amount for each of the four pots above.
  2. Give to each organization once, and only once, a year. (No matter how many calendars they send!)
  3. Keep a record of who you gave to and why.  Ask, "How can I focus my dollars for more impact?"  Generally, larger donations to fewer organizations is best.
  4. Once a year, review your record and make a budget for the coming year. 

Set yourself up for giving with meaning and impact, with room to buy a candy bar or two from that kid down the block.