A neophyte philanthropist’s guide to giving

As I’ve written before, when people think of philanthropists, images of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates often come to mind. In truth, the most quintessential philanthropist looks more like your grocery clerk, 7th grade teacher, or heck, you! Across nearly all income levels women are more likely to give and on average give more than men.

Whole books have been written about what’s wrong with the current philanthropic model. For a primer, check out my profile of the amazing Tyrone Boucher in Do It Anyway, or his thought-provoking blog, Enough. Until we revolutionize the system, I believe it’s worth our while to give up some of our resources (even very small amounts). It’s intimidating, however, to figure out how to give. Giving circles are awesome, as demonstrated by the 1% Foundation, but if you’re doling solo this year, here are a few guidelines that I use:

1. Reflect, then redistribute.
I like to spend a little time reflecting each year on what I feel are the most urgent social justice issues on my heart and mind. Then I find a range of organizations that speak to these issues. This way, I can fund media reform alongside climate justice, anti-hunger efforts alongside independent arts. Each might be getting a small amount from me, but at least I feel like my values and my philanthropy are as wide-ranging as my interests and passions.

2. Don’t overlook your self-interest, but don’t get stuck in it either.
I tend to spread my giving out between places like the Prospect Park Alliance and the Brooklyn Public Library, which I directly benefit from on a regular basis, and organizations like OXFAM, which has no direct impact on me. If a good friend asks me to give to an organization that they are on the board of, or even run, I’m likely to, but I make sure not to just give to orgs that I have a personal connection to.

2. Think locally and globally, simultaneously.
I like to give to orgs like Girls Write Now and GEMS, which are aiding young women in my own community, but also give to The Global Fund for Women, which helps girls and women far away from my personal world.

3. Give as gifts.
I find that, despite our societal emphasis on goods and services, people really are touched when I give a philanthropic gift in their name. Make it more personal by identifying an organization that really speaks to what you love about the person you are honoring.

4. Look for opportunities to leverage your gift.
Sometimes employers will match your gifts (I’ve never actually had one, so I don’t know much about this), and/or the nonprofit orgs, themselves, are participating in a matching program (like the National Network of Abortion Funds, which currently has a $30,000 matching gift.)

5. If you don’t have your own money to give, ask your aunt who always gets you a bad sweater to donate in your name instead.
Pretty self-explanatory. Do you want another Beanie Baby or Bath & Body Works nose explosion, or do you want to feel like you helped forward the work of activists and advocates your really care about?

6. Assume the best.
There’s a lot of talk in the philanthropic world about due diligence–making sure that an organization isn’t spending your money on overhead and not on direct service. I get why this is important, but I also like to live my life operating on the assumption that people have good intentions. Sure, check the org out on Charity Navigator or Guidestar, but don’t hold the organizations you give to up to impossible standards of reporting and perfection. It actually takes away energy and time from the real work.

7. Make a party of it.
Sometimes it can feel kind of weird and clinical to sit at your computer and give money away solo. Find a friend who also wants to give away some money, again, no matter how small the amount, and make a little party of it. Break out the hot toddies, bake a batch of cookies, and celebrate.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted December 20, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t quite have the contributing power that I wish I’d like, but I do contribute money to Quaker causes, or to fellow Friends who have their own equally worthy pet projects.

    I suppose the question I have is, do we give gifts of money or of service? And if we do both, how do we determine the proper balance between the two?

  2. Posted December 21, 2010 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I would like to give very broadly (i.e. small amounts to many different places), but I hesitate to do so because I don’t want to be deluged with junk mail just from a $10 donation (and after a couple years of mail, I imagine my initial gift actually has a negative impact…). It actually stops me from giving. as much as I would like. I wish there was one place that I could give a lump sum and then select a variety of charities and small amounts (as low as one dollar), and never actually be bothered by them. I’ve been wondering lately how to start such a thing.. (The hardest part would be getting started.)

    • Posted December 21, 2010 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Is there a United Way chapter in your home town? Maybe you should start one? This is the link to the Canadian site but I’m pretty sure they’re in the US as well.

      http://www2.unitedway.ca/uwcanada/

      • Posted December 21, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        Does the United Way really let you choose to give to, say, 20 charities of your choice? (And whatever amount you’d like?) I always thought United Way gave to lots and lots of charities, but the individual donor didn’t really choose for themselves.

    • Posted December 28, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      Re: sleepybones2, check out Kiva.org. You can donate a lump sum (say 100 dollars) and then select individual entrepreneurs to receive loans of your money. The cool thing with microlending giving is that when the individuals repay your loan, you get that money back to either withdraw or reinvest. All in all, pretty cool stuff. The causes are as diverse as building a girls’ school to a fabric business to the creation of a internet cafe– something for any interest.

      My other suggestion is Spark – a website that takes a survey of a volunteer’s interests and talents and matches them with nonprofits for pro-bono service. I think the website is Sparked.com, but I’m sure if you Google it you can find more. Best of luck!

  3. Posted December 21, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    For the last few years, at Christmas time, I have opted to adopt a local family on social assistance. The process is simple; local family and children’s aid agencies give you a profile of a family and a wish list for Christmas. You buy toys, winter coats, mitts, etc. for the children and something special for the parent(s) (I’ve only had single mothers) as well as purchasing food and special treats for the holidays.

    When I worked in a bigger office, we adopted a family as a group instead of exchanging Secret Santa gifts or whatever. It’s nice and really brings the group together. Also, it’s a good option for families with adult children. There’s that time between when your kids are kids and they have their own kids where Christmas gets harder and harder. I mean, what do you buy for a 25 yr old or for your parents? Instead, you can actually buy Christmas for a family in need.

    It’s so direct and so much better than giving and getting a bunch of unnecessary stuff.

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