my two cents

What’s the Best Way to Donate to Charity If You Don’t Have a Lot to Give?

Photo: Camerique/Getty Images

Every holiday season, my mailbox bursts with mail from every organization I’ve ever donated money to — along with some I’ve never even heard of. Each letter is its own guilt trip, emblazoned with homeless polar bears and burning trees, and I always feel bad throwing them out. (Which is the intention — and research shows it works: 30 percent of all annual giving occurs in December.) I understand the message — if I was able to give money to these organizations in the past, couldn’t I scrounge up a few bucks again, especially at the end of this hellish year?

While I’ve certainly made my share of random donations, I’m trying to be more strategic these days. According to Debra Mesch, the director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University, my previous tendencies to make small, spontaneous donations without any long-term vision is very common, but not always constructive. 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.”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this tactic — 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 doing something meaningful to fix it.

The first step is to self-evaluate. When I spoke with Barbara Stanny, a financial therapist 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. “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 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.”

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 (Stanny 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’s okay.

The key to a giving plan is to zoom in and do your research. “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.

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: Your money will go a lot farther if it is regular and reliable — even if that means it comes in smaller increments — because it allows organizations to anticipate that funding and plan their budgets around it.

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 a sort of emotional Band-Aid to make themselves feel better when a bad situation is in the news (forest fires, racist policing). Again, that reaction is understandable — and certainly better than doing nothing — but it doesn’t address the larger, systemic issues at play (global warming, the need for police reform). 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, 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.

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 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.

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