What’s the Best Way to Donate to Charity If You’re Not Rich?

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Photo: Camerique/Getty Images

Lisa, 31, is a graphic designer for a Brooklyn-based advertising firm. Like many of her peers, she has felt a call to action in the wake of the election, particularly to support affordable health-care access and women’s reproductive rights. She emailed a number of local organizations, including Planned Parenthood and an after-school tutoring program, but most of their volunteer hours don’t line up with her work schedule; between time and money, she’s worried that she doesn’t have much to offer. She wants to contribute, but she’s not sure what she can afford — she’s never been very organized with finances. She feels powerless and frustrated. How can she direct her energy so that it will make the most impact? Where should she start?

Riding the subway on November 9, I felt so keenly helpless that I gave the contents of my wallet to some kid asking for money for his basketball team. It probably wasn’t much, although I didn’t bother to count it before I awkwardly pressed it into his hand. The act was impulsive and self-serving — I was desperate for a quick hit of optimism, to feel like I mattered. The kid looked confused for a second, then took the wad of bills and scampered off the train. I suppose I hope his team is having a good season, but to be honest, I’d forgotten about the whole thing until now.

Research shows that what I did — make a random, unplanned donation without any long-term vision — is commonplace among women, and not particularly constructive. According to Debra Mesch, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, we give money more often than men, but we tend to sprinkle it around willy-nilly, and in smaller amounts. “Women often don’t even realize how much they’ve spent on philanthropic causes,” Debra told me over the phone. “A friend will say, ‘Oh, I’m running in this marathon for breast cancer, can you give $50?’ Men don’t do that as much, but women want to support their friends. They are more empathetic. So they spread out their giving.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this tactic — by all means, throw money behind your friend’s marathon if you’re truly committed to it. But if you fritter away various gifts without a larger intention, you’re more likely to lose track of them and miss out on the biggest reward of philanthropy: the satisfaction of getting fired up about a problem and doing something meaningful to fix it. Lisa, it sounds like this is what you’re after. It’s time to examine the long game of what you believe in, and how you want to play it.

The first step is to self-evaluate. When I spoke with Barbara Stanny, a women’s finance guru and author of no fewer than six books on the subject (including the wonderfully titled Prince Charming Isn’t Coming: How Women Get Smart About Money), she was very stern about the necessary groundwork. “The four rules of money: You spend less, you save more, you invest wisely, and you give generously — in that order,” she said. “If you don’t, not only do you sabotage your own future security, but you diminish the impact you can make. I see women just giving their money away all the time without a second thought — to their children, to those little plastic containers at the market. And they think they’re doing good, but it’s to their own detriment. First, you must take care of yourself.”

Barbara also believes that, when done properly, philanthropy empowers you to make and save more money, ironic as it sounds. This is especially true for women, she says, and it’s a cornerstone of her financial counseling. “One example: I was working with an artist who made decent money, but she would just spend it all,” she said. “To get her to be a better steward of her money, I said, ‘Imagine you had more money than you needed. What would you use it for?’ And she got all excited about supporting these nonprofits for artists. It shifted everything. What seemed absolutely boring and stupid — managing money — suddenly became interesting to her, because there was a greater purpose. Women are much more purpose-driven than profit-driven. I see it all the time.”

In philanthropy parlance, this purpose is known as a “giving plan,” and you don’t need any money to make one. You can read entire books on the topic (Barbara recommends Tracy Gary’s Inspired Philanthropy), but in short, it’s simply figuring out where you want to give, how much, and when you’ll try to give more. If you can only pry a few bucks out of your budget right now, that still counts. As does volunteering — time is money, and even more so when you can offer specialized skills (Lisa, I’m sure plenty of organizations would welcome some pro-bono graphic-design work). If you want to see encouraging visuals about the value of your volunteer hours, check out the website for the Corporation for National & Community Service, which tracks metrics by state.

The key to a giving plan is to zoom in. “My advice to young women is to figure out what your passion is, and match it to an organization or an area where you want to see that change,” said Debra. In other words, what do you ruminate about in the middle of the night? Focus on that anxiety, and find the people who can fight it effectively. If your thing is women’s reproductive rights, double down on it. If you’re more concerned about global warming, start there. Websites like Guidestar are a great resource for researching local nonprofits; pick a lane and lock in, at least for the time being.

As anyone who relies on donor funding will tell you, philanthropy isn’t just for the Melinda Gateses of the world. You might not be getting your photo taken with a giant cardboard check anytime soon, but your contributions will add up over time, and you can set specific goals for giving more as your salary increases. “Millennial women may not have much money yet, but as their careers progress, I think that they are going to feel much more confident in their philanthropy than previous generations,” said Debra. “Our research shows that they’re being really innovative, too. They’re using technology to crowdfund, and pooling their resources.”

By concentrating your efforts, you’ll get to witness your influence more quickly. Any good nonprofit will be able to tell you exactly where your money went, and you should feel free to ask. You’ll also have an easier time keeping track of your contributions, so you can write them off your taxes — which will become even more important as they grow.

And finally, a clear picture of what you support will give you the resolve to (kindly) turn down other demands on your bank account — whether it’s people asking for money, or pressure to buy something you don’t need or want. It incentivizes you to treat your money as a positive and powerful tool rather than a means to pay bills, which brings a sense of clarity and control.

At the very least, this incoming political administration is a sharp prod to get your fiscal house in order; at most, it could inspire a lifelong commitment to activism. As Barbara put it: “We can look at this election as a disaster for some of us, but it’s also a rallying cry. It’s a clarion call for all of us to step up to the plate.”

What’s the Best Way to Donate to Charity If You’re Not Rich?