Every holiday season, my mailbox bursts with letters from every organization I’ve ever donated money to — along with plenty I’ve never heard of. Each envelope is its own guilt trip, printed with heartbreaking photos of homeless polar bears and burning trees, and I always feel awful throwing them out. At this time of year, when I’m feeling generous and lucky and a little bit reckless, couldn’t I spare a few extra bucks? (This is one reason why 30 percent of all annual giving occurs in December.)
I’ve certainly made my share of random donations, but I’m trying to be more strategic these days. According to Debra Mesch, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, most people tend to make small, spontaneous gifts without any long-term vision. Which is not necessarily bad, but not as constructive as more targeted giving. It’s also more typical among women — we give money more often than men, but we tend to sprinkle it around, and in lower amounts. “Women often don’t even realize how much they’ve spent on philanthropic causes,” Mesch told me. “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. So they spread out their giving.”
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this — by all means, give money to your friends’ causes. And it’s true that every dollar helps. 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 committing to help fix it. Here’s how to go about it.
1. Know how much you can afford to give.
When I spoke with Barbara Stanny, a financial educator who has written seven books about money management, 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.”
Stanny also believes that, when done properly, giving money away can also inspire people to make and save more of it. “For many of my clients, managing money seems boring and stupid, but when there’s a greater purpose, it becomes more compelling,” she says.
In philanthropy parlance, this purpose is known as a “giving plan,” and you don’t need to be rich to make one. You can read entire books on the topic (Stanny recommends Tracy Gary’s Inspired Philanthropy), but in short, it’s simply figuring out how much you can give, where you want to give it, and when you’ll be able to give more. If you can only pry a few bucks out of your budget right now, that’s okay.
2. Do your research on the organizations you want to fund.
“My advice 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 Mesch. This isn’t difficult: What do you ruminate about in the middle of the night? Pinpoint 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 racial justice, start there. Websites like Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch are great resources for researching nonprofits that align with the causes you care about; pick a lane (or a small few) and focus.
That said, don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. No charitable organization is perfect, and the websites that evaluate them are flawed, too. Once you’ve decided on a cause and an amount, go through with it.
3. Be consistent.
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, especially if you set up automated recurring donations. This is important: Recurring donations allow organizations to anticipate your funds and plan their budgets around it, which allows them to operate more smoothly and efficiently. In other words, your gifts will go further if they are regular and reliable, even if that means they come in smaller increments.
I have also found that recurring donations force me to do my research and commit. A lot of people — including myself, in the past — use donations as an emotional Band-Aid to make themselves feel better when a bad situation is in the news (lack of abortion access, the war in Ukraine). Again, that reaction is understandable — and certainly better than doing nothing — but it doesn’t always address the larger, systemic issues at play (protecting abortion rights, aiding refugees worldwide). Now I use recurring donations as a kind of litmus test: If I want to support a cause, what’s a reputable organization in that realm, one that I’d feel comfortable supporting for years on end?
By concentrating your efforts and keeping an eye on the bigger picture, you’ll have a better connection to the causes you’re supporting — and you’ll get to see your own influence over time. 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.
4. Put yourself in the organization’s shoes.
I once heard a great analogy that giving effectively is like going to a potluck dinner: Figure out what’s needed before you show up. If the host is already making dessert, consider bringing a side instead of brownies; if most guests are vegetarians, maybe don’t bring meatloaf.
The potluck scenario translates to philanthropy in that your goal is to help the organization operate as smoothly and effectively as possible, so that it can do the most good. Making a specialized donation (say, asking that your money only go toward one specific goal) is nice, but it also causes more work for the recipient because they need to earmark that gift and budget accordingly. In general, no-strings-attached gifts are more helpful because an organization probably knows its budget better than you do, and should be trusted to put your money where it needs to go.
The potluck analogy also applies when it comes to donating your time. It’s always great to volunteer, but think about where your skills will be most useful. Just like you’d want to bring your very best dish to a friend’s dinner, try to volunteer your labor in an area where you have some expertise or at least some experience. If you’re an accountant, offer to help with bookkeeping; if you’re handy with design, maybe you can do some web graphics for free.
5. Know how to say no.
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 tool rather than a means to pay bills, which brings a sense of clarity and control — something we could all use in the final days of this year.
This post has been updated.