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What’s your process for deciding how to donate your money?
It’s okay if you don’t know how to answer. For plenty of people, charitable giving is mostly ad hoc or reactionary — something done after a natural disaster or around the holidays—and that’s certainly better than not giving at all. But every donation you make comes from your hard-earned money, which means that each one deserves the same level of planning and care that you’d give to your other investments.
And that’s exactly what a donation is: an investment in an issue that’s important to you. To maximize your return — that is, to make sure your money makes the greatest impact — you should have a plan in place for the causes you want to support and the individual organizations most deserving of your dollars, as well as how much and how often you’ll give. Follow these steps to build a philanthropic portfolio that you can feel great about.
Pick your issues
It’s easy to blindly gravitate toward issues everyone else is supporting, but to create a philanthropic portfolio that you find exciting and inspiring, it’s important to reflect on the causes that matter most to you. Try this exercise: Take a few minutes to write down all the causes that come to mind. Next, order them in some way — for example, assign a greater weight to issues that you find most currently pressing, or separate causes by reach (local, national, global). Revisit this list often to make sure each issue continues to resonate with you.
Find organizations that align with your interests
You might already have a few organizations in mind. To source more leads, use your network: Ask friends and family which organizations they donate to or if they have any recommendations. News articles related to the causes you’ve chosen will often highlight organizations doing good work. An old-fashioned Google search can also be helpful: When you search for an organization, the results will often highlight related groups on the right side of the results page.
Do your due diligence
For each organization you’re considering, think about three things:
- Reach: How many people does the organization touch with its programming?
- Impact: What are the outcomes of that programming, and are they quantified or measured in a clear way?
- Financial discipline: Is the organization smart with its money?
Start your research at GuideStar and Charity Navigator, two sites that function as a sort of Better Business Bureau for nonprofits and provide a good snapshot of an organization’s vitals. Information about reach and impact can usually be found on the organization’s website and annual reports. It’s also a good idea to search for news articles about the organization’s work for further insight into specific initiatives.
The financial piece requires more digging. Charity Navigator offers financial performance metrics, such as fundraising efficiency and program expense ratios (the percent of the charity’s total expenses that went to the programs and services it delivers). Take a look at the organization’s most recent IRS Form 990, which provides the public with financial information, including executive pay, about a nonprofit organization. You can find 990s at Foundation Center.
These forms can be dense. Taylor Romigh Harrison, an associate at the law firm Drinker Biddle & Reath who advises tax-exempt organizations, recommends focusing on four key sections of Form 990:
- Part One: The organization’s revenue statement.
- Part Three: A list of the organization’s largest activities and how much it spends on them.
- Part Seven: Compensation for officers and board members. (“Ask yourself if you think those salaries are reasonable,” Harrison advises.)
- Part Nine: The statement of functional expenses, which details costs related to program services, management, and fundraising.
Ilse Peterson, a strategy consultant to tax-exempt organizations at Drinker Biddle & Reath, suggests taking into account several qualitative factors as well. “Think about how much of a difference you want your gift to make,” she suggests. “Some organizations will always be very well funded. There’s definitely value in supporting them given their scale, but also consider smaller nonprofits with a greater need for funding. Your gift may mean more because they don’t have as many resources.”
Decide on your budget and allocation
Once you’ve chosen the organizations you want to support, match them up with the reality of your budget. If you have $100 to give each month and five organizations you’d like to support, you might want to make an even split and donate $20 to each. But if you feel most passionate about a particular issue, you may decide to grant $40 per month to, say, your local food pantry, and then divvy up the remaining $60 among your other chosen causes.
Figure out giving logistics
After determining what and where you want to give, make sure you set up your gift in a way that is most convenient for you. This will increase the likelihood that you’ll continue.
Andrew Forman, co-founder of the charitable giving app Givz, lists inconvenience as one of the top barriers preventing people from making repeat donations. “Every time people want to donate, they have to type in their information,” he says. “Even if you’re making two donations back-to-back to different organizations, it will inevitably feature two different links and two different processes.” Signing up for an automatic donation on the organization’s website can reduce some of this friction. It also demonstrates confidence in your chosen organizations and helps support their work for the long term.
“Charities really want monthly gifts, because it helps with planning and creates a predictable revenue stream,” Peterson says. “Giving monthly also allows you to plan and have more regularity in your own expenses.”
Another option is a donor-advised fund, an investment account administered by a financial institution. You can contribute cash, appreciated assets, or investments, and the fund will cut checks to charities on your behalf. These funds charge fees and typically require investments of a few thousand dollars to start.
Some companies also have corporate match programs for employee giving, so it’s worth investigating if your employer has one. And if money is tight at any point, consider swapping out your cash donation for volunteer time.
Monitor and evaluate your portfolio regularly
As with an investment portfolio, it’s important to keep regular tabs on your philanthropic portfolio. Make sure to read email newsletters, annual reports, and CEO letters so you don’t miss important updates. Set a Google alert for news about your organizations as well. Lastly, set a calendar reminder to reevaluate your priorities and update them if need be—quarterly is great, but do this at least annually. Don’t be afraid to swap around the causes you support as your interests and priorities change. The important thing is that you’re putting your money to work in a way that feels meaningful, whatever that might look like.