gift guide: a charitable giving primer.

November 28, 2016

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Many people feel especially motivated to lend a helping hand around the holiday season and for some folks, that might mean taking a look at their coffers (or skill sets) to see who else they might be able to reach with thoughtful donations of money or time to good causes at the end of the year. This year, James and I have decided to take a look at the spending that we’ve done on family Christmas presents over the past few years (we keep a spreadsheet to keep track of costs and remember what we’ve given in years past!) and instead of giving traditional presents this year, we’re donating the majority of the same funds we might have otherwise spent on gifts for ourselves and our family members to charities that we believe in. We’ll still offer something small and simple for family to open on Christmas morning, but we’ll also be making cards letting folks know that we’ve given a gift to a charity in their name.

In case you’re looking for ways to make a difference this holiday season (and in advance of Giving Tuesday tomorrow!), I thought it might be helpful to publish a charitable gift giving primer. Consider it a starter guide to putting hard earned money (or skills!) to use for causes you care about. 

What’s a charity and how does it work?

Charities (nonprofits) work in a number of ways. For instance, nonprofits that you might consider supporting for Giving Tuesday might focus on advocacy (to change public opinion, practices and laws), direct services (like providing legal services for refugees), or research (climate change, disease, etc.) and lots of organizations work across these three main areas.

Who should I donate to?

Deciding what kind of charity to support is a deeply personal matter. In the current political climate, you may decide to support causes that are most likely to suffer from the change in administration. For example, organizations that support:

+ Human rights – especially those that advocate for LGBTQ, Muslim, black, and Latino communities

+ Women’s health and empowerment

+ Free press

+ Immigration issues

+ Refugees

+ Environment

That said, it’s probably most important to identify a cause that is meaningful to you and that you are willing to support over the long-term. Other noble causes you might consider could include:

+ Veterans

+ Arts and humanities

+ Scientific and medical research

+ Hunger and homelessness

+ Animal welfare

+ Education and job preparedness 

What are the best practices when choosing and giving to a specific charity?

+ Give from the heart: Choose a cause that is important to you and will likely remain a priority. One-off donations in response to a crisis, like natural disasters, are important, but your money will have the biggest impact if you concentrate your giving on one or two organizations and continue to support them over time.

+ Do your research: Check an organization’s rating and details on their spending and results on sites like Charity Navigator or GuideStar. That said, don’t discount organizations that are not rated, especially local or newer nonprofits. Charity Navigator provides solid guidance on how to conduct due diligence on unrated organizations

+ Donate unrestricted funds: Donate to organizations that you trust to use your donation wisely, and then let them decide how the money would best be deployed. Earmarking funds for specific programs means none of it can be used to cover essentials like office space, software, fundraising, and communications. This isn’t sexy stuff, but an organization can’t do good work without investing in their infrastructure, too. It’s important to note that nonprofits are often judged on the percentage of funding they spend on programs versus overhead (this is called their overhead ratio). Overhead is the cost of running an organization, like office space, staff training, and the accounting and fundraising software they need to raise and keep track of donations (!). Most people in the nonprofit sector agree that overhead ratio is not a good measure of an organization’s effectiveness. In fact, the three leading organizations that collect and analyze information on nonprofits in the US all recommend that overhead ratio not be used as a metric for assessing organizations you might want to support. Keep in mind that in order to do good work, an organization needs to invest in its staff and its infrastructure—and that all falls under the umbrella of overhead spending!

+ Make your donation a monthly one: Monthly donations help organizations plan their budgets for the year. If you have a total amount in mind, consider dividing it by 12 and make your donation a recurring one. (NB: Some organizations have a monthly minimum of $5 or $10, so this might only apply to folks who are able to donate $60 or $120 or more!).

+ Double up: Ask if your employer has a corporate matching policy for donations. Some companies will match their employees’ contributions, thereby doubling your impact. If you don’t work for a large corporation, consider setting up a similar matching campaign with your own family members. You might be able to drastically improve your reach if you make a family-wide giving plan.

Okay, and what if I don’t have any money to give? What else can I give besides cash?

+ Time: Volunteering at an organization can be as helpful as giving funds. As with cash donations, do your research and make sure the organization is a good fit for your personally. Much like with monthly monetary donations, consider a regular volunteering commitment as opposed to helping at a one-time event. Charity Navigator has a good guide to volunteering.

+ Voice: Speak up! If you support an organization (by donating, volunteering, or even if you just think they’re up to something great), talk about it. Post about it on social media and provide a link to the organization’s donation page. Mention to your friends and family how it feels to donate or volunteer and why you do it. This kind of verbal chatter and endorsement can go a long way toward encouraging other folks to get active.

+ Skills: Are you a graphic artist? You could help a nonprofit develop eye-catching communications materials they might otherwise not be able to afford. Are you a programmer? You could design a new website for a local nonprofit. Are you a really great writer? You could help an organization raise money by helping them work on a grant application. If you’re not sure how to start, Taproot Foundation is a great place for connecting people willing to provide pro bono services with nonprofits looking for help.

+ Stuff (aka noncash items): In most cases, it is better to provide money than to provide goods. That said, local organizations, in particular, may have a need for specific items. Make sure that what you’re able to offer is a good match for what an organization needs. Homeless shelters and food pantries, for example, have limited storage and limited ability to sort through donations (and it costs them money to store, sort and distribute donated goods!). Check websites and make phone calls before dropping off donations and resist the urge to donate items that haven’t been specifically requested. Instead, you might consider selling items and donating the money earned from the sale instead. Charity Navigator has a helpful guide to noncash donations, too.

charitable_gifts_reading_my_tea_leaves_img_5808I need specifics! Who should I give my time or money to?

While I wouldn’t want to make these decisions for you, if you’re feeling stumped, here’s a (very much) non-exhaustive list of organizations working harder than ever to provide services and programs to folks in need:

American Civil Liberties Union: A national nonprofit working in “courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”

Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): A nonprofit with a mission to “enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.”

EarthJustice: A nonprofit, public interest law organization that “wields the power of law and the strength of partnership to preserve the wild, to fight for healthy communities, and to advance clean energy to promote a healthy climate.”

Human Rights Campaign: A nonprofit civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equality.

Mother Jones: A reader-supported, nonprofit news organization dedicated to independent and investigative journalism.

National Immigration Forum: A nonprofit advocating for the value of immigrants and immigration to the United States.

National Resources Defense Council: An environmental nonprofit with a mission to “safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends.” They fulfill their mission through members, lawyers, policy advocates, and scientists.

Planned Parenthood: A women’s health nonprofit providing reproductive health services, advocating public policies that support those rights, providing educational programs on human sexuality, and promoting research and technological advancement in reproductive health care.

ProPublica: An independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to producing investigative journalism in the public interest.

Southern Poverty Law Center: A nonprofit “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.” They pursue their mission through litigation, education, and advocacy.

Women’s Refugee Commission: A nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives and protecting the rights of women, children, and youth displaced by conflict and crisis.

Please feel free to share your own plans for giving or specific nonprofits that you already support in the comments section!

Special thanks to Allison Zimmerman Chadha for the invaluable research she contributed to this post.

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47 Comments

  • Reply JB November 28, 2016 at 10:21 am

    Yessssss! All of the posts on your blog these days hit the spot. I strongly believe that bloggers have voices that should be used for a bit of engagement, so thank you, Erin.

    • Reply Vickie perez December 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm

      This is wonderful …I no we are all in need of something in our life’s this time of years I no i am but I am so happy to see this here today the homeless and hungry is so sad in this world today so God bless you all for helping others in need ..I look around and see nothing under my tree but at least I have a home with a tress thank you….

  • Reply Bridget November 28, 2016 at 10:26 am

    There’s this amazing charity (which I’ve given to in the past and from the inspiration from your post, will get to for Christmas) that gives child marriage survivors photography workshops to encourage them to tell their stories through a visual medium. Here is the link: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/end-child-marriage/reports/#menu

    The girls not only get to share the reality of child marriage from a first-hand perspective but also learn a skill that could equip them for brighter futures!

  • Reply Rachel November 28, 2016 at 10:34 am

    This is an awesome article! I really appreciate all the resources, like Charity Navigator, as I tend to be unsure of what are places that will actually use my donation properly.

  • Reply Pepper November 28, 2016 at 10:36 am

    Amazing list- thank you! I also just wanted to add that if you *don’t* have the funds, but you *do* have valuable stuff sitting in your closet (think prada bag, old iphone, silver tiffany’s charm) that you don’t want or need… you can donate them to the charity of your choice and have the items PICKED UP from your apartment (yay nyc).
    Just go to:
    http://www.mightygoodthings.org
    It’s a new charitable organization a la Goodwill, except that it allows you to pick the charity you want to fund. Pretty awesome.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 28, 2016 at 10:43 am

      Thanks for mentioning. Even easier than selling them yourself and donating the income!

      • Reply Pepper November 28, 2016 at 10:51 am

        way easier! 🙂

        • Reply Pepper November 29, 2016 at 4:35 pm

          Also this: for people in LA, SF, NYC and Chicago: now you can schedule a pickup during a 1-hour window. No boxes or hassle. Super easy to donate that old camera, macbook or designer bag to fund your favorite charity!

  • Reply Julia November 28, 2016 at 10:44 am

    Thank you so much for these suggestions!

    I also recommend Emma’s Torch, a new organization that empowers female refugees in New York City through culinary training, with the end goal of helping these women find sustainable careers in the food industry. (They also have a launch event in Manhattan this December, which my husband and I are excited to attend!)

    http://emmastorch.org/what-we-do/

  • Reply Lynn November 28, 2016 at 10:47 am

    Another great thing to donate this time of year is diapers and formula. These are always in high demand. Women’s shelters, homeless shelters, and “diaper banks” are all great choices.

  • Reply Hitha November 28, 2016 at 10:54 am

    This is my kind of gift guide. And making it easy to donate on behalf of others is literally our business – NO.GIFTS. I’d love to include our ‘gift impact’ tool that we just launched to easily gift a donation to friends and family through our company.

    The website is as simple as the name: http://no.gifts/

  • Reply becky November 28, 2016 at 11:08 am

    I love this! This has been on my mind for some time. I’ve been considering animal shelters book and jackets drives. If we give a book to our young nieces then we can donate one in their names to a book drive. We don’t want people to feel cheated on Christmas but often presents are admired while they are shiny and new then left behind a week later or when a new toy arrives.

  • Reply Aku November 28, 2016 at 11:20 am

    This is amazing! Thank you, Erin. I’ll also recommend the International Rescue Committee, which provides humanitarian relief across the world and is doing major work to resettle refugees in the United States: https://www.rescue.org/.

    Thanks especially for mentioning education, arts, and humanities as areas of long-term interest. They’re easily forgotten, but crucial to building a better future. On that front, 826 National is one of the best organizations to volunteer with. From tutoring to creative writing workshops to college admissions prep, they do it all–and with a highly inclusive philosophy that seeks to empower both the kids and the volunteers. I love them. http://826national.org/

    I’ll be passing your list along to friends; between this and the advent calendar, you’re on fire this month, and I appreciate it.

  • Reply Libby November 28, 2016 at 11:28 am

    I love this post.
    In the last several weeks, I’ve come face to face with not only my own consumerism but also with the fact that I’ve been expecting other people to step up in times of need. I didn’t know this about myself–but I’ve come to realize it’s true.
    In just the past few weeks we’ve ramped up our giving! We don’t have much but $5-10 here or there really does add up to help organizations that are working for the good of our communities (and other communities as well!). I even got the ball rolling on volunteering at our local sexual assault center in town.
    And your post are just spurring me on, making sure that I don’t forget to give give give in any way that I can!

  • Reply Juliet November 28, 2016 at 11:41 am

    We love buying our holiday gifts through Oxfam, a wonderful global charity. It’s really fun to buy a cow or a flock of chickens for your friends as a holiday present 🙂 The livestock are delivered to families in need and provide long term aid though food and potential income. We have also bought the “train a midwife” gift as a thank you for our midwives after each of our sons were born.

    I just saw this – a kind donor is matching all gifts bought through Oxfam today, Cyber Monday 🙂
    https://www.oxfamgifts.com

  • Reply Lara November 28, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Thank you so much for this list, it is so helpful!

  • Reply Mary Kate November 28, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Just another note to say that you are awesome and again, I so appreciate your using your platform to make a real difference.

    Post-election, I have signed up for several different monthly donations, as well as adopted another child from Children International (which I love! About $30/month lets you support a specific child in need, and you get updates and photos of your child periodically throughout the year, as well as get to send letters and cards to them: https://www.children.org/) but I would really love to go the “skill set” route as well in terms of helping. Anything specific anyone can recommend for writers/social media experts in terms of giving?

  • Reply Laura November 28, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you for this post! I am very cash strapped, so I like your idea about donating time. It would be nice to give that time in honor of a loved one. Do you have any ideas about how to ‘package’ that for them?

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:18 am

      I would go a similar route—a pretty card explaining the gift—a donation of time or money is still a donation!

  • Reply Kathleen November 28, 2016 at 1:55 pm

    Wonderful post. I have worked in non-profit fundraising for a long time for a very local environmental non-profit in Arizona. I would encourage folks to seek out organizations in their communities, along with the larger groups you listed. I try to give to a mix of both. Also, smaller, local organizations will be much easier to reach if you want to talk to someone directly about the impact of your gift or learn more about their finances. We also have a few donors that give monthly gifts directly through their bank, which eliminates any credit-card processing fees. Their bank simply sends us a check each month in the amount they set up. Monthly giving is so, so helpful and I’ve loved seeing it increase in popularity recently. Thanks again for putting together such a comprehensive and spot-on post about charitable giving!

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Yes, agreed!

  • Reply Kate November 28, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Thank you, Erin. This is a great post. I’m planning to sit down with my partner soon and choose a few donations to our favorite organizations. I think it’s also a great opportunity to have a family discussion about values and priorities. I know that a small local organization that helped us when my grandfather was experiencing dementia will be one I continue supporting, but we also give to environmental work, would like to contribute to our local homelessness crisis, and I’d like to make another gift to acknowledge the difficulty we’re currently seeing with regards to Native American rights.

    Charity rating sites are a helpful resource when you’re getting started, but I think the focus on money spent on “programs” can be misleading. (Here is a favorite TED talk about this issue: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pallotta_the_way_we_think_about_charity_is_dead_wrong). Ratings are a snapshot — I think it’s also important to get to know the organizations you support and trust your gut.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Right, totally. Only one factor to consider (but hopefully it breaks down a barrier for folks who feel uncertain about giving at all without what they see as “vetting” an organization.)

  • Reply Nancy November 28, 2016 at 3:13 pm

    Great primer! I’m going to share it on my organization’s FB page.
    I’m on the board of a small non-profit , called Pathways Togo, started by Peace Corps Volunteers that served in Togo, West Africa. Our goal is to remove the financial barriers to education for girls and women. For Giving Tuesday, we launched a Thunderclap campaign that expires tomorrow! We still need a few more people to support our Thunderclap. We’re not asking for a donation with our Thunderclap, just a few minutes of your time to support and share! Here’s the Thunderclap if you’d like to help us out: https://www.thunderclap.it/projects/49949-give-encouragement?locale=en

    Thank you!

  • Reply Jeannie November 28, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    I love this post. How do you handle people like your postman(woman), hair dresser etc…?

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:16 am

      Do you mean in terms of giving? I typically give a small cash gift to folks who help us: the gentleman who delivers our laundry, our babysitter, etc.) and I would continue to go that route.

  • Reply Deb November 28, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Also a quick note that Planned Parenthood in some states are more in need than others! If you can, think about donating to PP of states with more restrictive abortion laws or fewer clinics!

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:14 am

      Yes! Actually learned a few interesting tidbits about this: Donations to the PPFA (the national affiliate) are used for general advocacy efforts, while the donations to the local affiliates are used to offset the costs of services. When you donate, you can actually split your donation 50/50 between national efforts and local efforts (or give 100% to either). And yes, you can definitely donate to particular affiliates in locations that might be especially vulnerable. Interestingly, because PP is looking at defunding on the national level, there’s some concern that affiliates in places like California or New York that are not typically a vulnerable will be facing difficulties for the first time. (For instance, affiliates who receive a large portion of their funding through federal aid from medicare…) Anyway, just something to keep in mind!

  • Reply lindsay November 28, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    I love this post! I especially love what you write about overhead spending. I work in fundraising for a large non-profit, and often have to explain to people how investing in infrastructure and “overhead” is not frivolous and can lead to a higher quality of work overall.

    • Reply Kate November 28, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      Another professional fundraiser chiming in here! I agree with Lindsey–thanks for the diligent research and reminding potential donors of the importance of investing in people and infrastructure through unrestricted gifts to ensure quality programs can be implemented and reach their full potential. This is a great post and goes a long way in the endless challenge of donor education. Thank you!

      • Reply Kate November 28, 2016 at 11:25 pm

        Sorry…Lindsay not Lindsey 🙂

  • Reply Cordelia November 28, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    I am so thankful for your big heart! I can’t wait to use these tools of giving this season!

  • Reply Haley November 28, 2016 at 8:18 pm

    Keep in mind that if you donate using a credit or debit card, the charity often has to pay credit card processing fees, which decreases the amount of your donation that goes towards their mission — this is particularly pertinent if you’re setting up a small monthly donation. Consider setting up your monthly donations through your bank account’s bill pay feature; it is usually free for you, you can set it up to be a recurring payment just like for a credit card so you won’t have to think about it, and it saves the organization a little bit of money.

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:08 am

      Yes! Another commenter mentioned this, too! Such a nice point!

  • Reply Szilvia Horvath November 29, 2016 at 4:18 am

    Thank you, Erin, for reminding this twenty-something of how lucky and safe she is, having everything (and much more, than) she’s ever needed. I definitely have a more conscious approach to gifting and celebrating this season, and living in general. Congratulations to the blog (and book) and thank you for all the inspiration! Love from London, UK

  • Reply Aileen November 29, 2016 at 4:27 am

    I love this post. My husband and I instead of sending Christmas Cards (apart from to a select few) always give a large donation to a charity close to our hearts. Last year it was for Epilepsy due to 2 of our friends having babies who were both diagnosed with Epilepsy. Throughout the year we also donate monthly to Tommys (research into Miscarriage, Premature Births and Stillbirths) Cancer Research, Great Ormond Street Hospital and The Red Cross. If we can all just give a little, great things can be done. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply Stacie November 29, 2016 at 7:46 am

    This is great! We are trying to save as much money for the baby, since I will be off work for 3 months, but I am still trying to find small ways to make a difference. (Like donating things we aren’t using that are still in good condition). Also, you can go to smile.amazon.com and choose a non-profit and they will donate a small amount of the cost to the organization. It’s not much, but if you frequently purchase necessities off of the site, then it does add up!

    Another thing I am really worried about with the new administration is climate change. In Pennsylvania, you can easily switch where your electricity is coming from and keep the same provider (you can even be a renter!) and support clean energy. It’s a small change that makes a big impact on our environment, and it usually is only a dollar or two more a month. I’m not sure how it works in other states, but it’s definitely worth looking into.
    https://www.greenmountainenergy.com/

    • Reply Erin Boyle November 29, 2016 at 9:07 am

      Great ideas! We’ve been signed up through alternative energy for many years now, and those few dollars are definitely not ones that we notice at the end of the month!

  • Reply Dawn Gerrity November 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Thank you for this list. I’ve been saying that I need to start putting my money where my mouth is (and not just money!) Instead of just reading about things I want to do things and this is a great list!! Thank you!!

  • Reply susan / fleurishing November 29, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Such a valuable resource Erin, I’ve included it in my #givingtuesday post. Thank you for all the time and effort you gave to this!

  • Reply Esha November 29, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Brilliant. Would love to see more people do this.

  • Reply Meghan November 29, 2016 at 4:51 pm

    Please support debra of America. http://www.debra.org
    debra of America is the only U.S. nonprofit providing all-inclusive support to the EB Community, through funding research for a cure and by providing free programs and services for those with: Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB).

    EB is as common as ALS and Cystic Fibrosis yet too few know about it. Most who are born with EB won’t live past the age of 30. It truly is the “The Worst Disease You’ve Never Heard Of.”

  • Reply Natalie Denyse November 30, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    This is a thoughtfully curated collection – thanks so much for sharing! Erin – I’d love to get you connected with Beth Helmstetter, a top-rated destination event designer who was inspired to launch The Good Beginning; an online wedding registry for charitable causes throughout the world. Driven by a greater calling to connect couples with causes that would give back to communities in need while helping couples begin their marriage with the ritual of generosity.

    In addition to (or in lieu of) classic china and luxurious cotton sheets, couples can invite their guests to join them in supporting a worthy charity. The Good Beginning targets over 130 organizations from the Flint Water Crisis to Syrian refugees and many efforts in between. To date, The Good Beginning’s couples have contributed over $250,000 to worthy causes around the world that may have otherwise been spent on espresso makers and sheet sets.

    The Good Beginning: http://thegoodbeginning.com/

  • Reply Kristen January 14, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    A beautifully written and important post! I also love the attached photo and simplicity of the stationery. Do you remember where your lowercase rubber stamp set is from?

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE January 15, 2017 at 10:51 am

      Thanks so much! I got mine at The Ink Pad in the West Village!

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