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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