There are more than one and a half million nonprofits in the U.S. and ten million worldwide. From supporting education and cancer research to protecting the environment and ensuring human rights for all, the list of worthy causes is endless. No wonder the process of deciding where you want to donate can be overwhelming!
As a financial planner, I have assisted many clients with achieving financial security, determining how much they can afford to give while balancing their other goals and evaluating the most tax-efficient method for their donations. After addressing all these questions, many people still struggle with deciding on which organization to choose. One of my clients recently came to me with exactly this issue. They had been donating for years in small amounts to numerous organizations, seemingly more and more each year as they discovered new causes they wanted to support. While spreading the love felt good, they had decided to consolidate their donations to make a greater impact in a single organization and weren’t sure how to narrow their selection.
Here is my advice to them, and it goes for anyone, whether you are donating for the first time, consolidating donations, or considering making a large gift: Begin by reflecting on your motivation for giving. Is it to improve your local community? Do you want to help people in circumstances similar to your own experiences? If, at some point in your life, you benefited from someone else’s donations—for example, through a scholarship, food pantry, counseling, or healthcare services—you may want to pay it forward. Perhaps you’re an animal lover or there is a specific current event that you feel passionate about, such as disaster relief, that can help narrow down your cause.
If you’re still having trouble selecting a specific cause, ask yourself whether you would prefer to donate to an organization that will directly impact your own local community or if you would prefer to focus on larger-scale issues. If you want to see change in your own community, is there something specific that stands out to you? Does your community have a large, unhoused population? Are the schools underfunded? Do the parks need an upgrade? Would you like to see a more significant local investment in the arts? If nothing immediately stands out to you, talk with friends and neighbors, or consider contacting your elected officials or local community impact groups for information on the most critical needs in your area. If you want to peruse local organizations, many states have great resources available to help. A couple of examples are Washington’s Give Big (www.wagives.org) and the Oregon Cultural Trust (www.culturaltrust.org).
If you don’t feel strongly about keeping your funds local, CharityNavigator.com is a wonderful resource that allows you to search by cause among thousands of charities. It also includes specially curated lists of organizations covering a variety of causes and current events. If searching among thousands of organizations feels overwhelming, Givewell.org is a nonprofit that highlights a few global charities that “save or improve lives the most per dollar.”
When considering impact, the size of the charitable organization can matter along with the size of your donation. A donation to a small organization could be the difference that helps that nonprofit keep its doors open for several more years, whereas it may just be a small drop in the bucket for a larger charity. On the other hand, large organizations can benefit from economies of scale, allowing them to reduce costs and deepen their impact. If you have concerns about the size of your donation or want to amplify it, try pooling it with like-minded people through a Giving Circle. You can start your own with a group of friends who share your values or join an existing group (find one in your area at www.philanthropytogether.org).
Once you have found an organization you are interested in donating to, you may want to familiarize yourself with it beyond its web page. I suggest scheduling a meeting with the executive director or board members for a one-on-one opportunity to hear the importance of the organization firsthand; learn about their current priorities, needs, and challenges; and have your questions answered. The larger the donation, the more personalized attention you can expect to receive. During this conversation, you can also determine whether you want your donation to be restricted to a certain area of their mission, directed to the endowment for a lasting impact, or made as an unrestricted donation the nonprofit can use as needed. For large donations, you may even be able to work with the organization to create a separate fund that aligns with the charity’s overall mission but can only be used for very specific purposes, which you determine.
One of the best ways to learn about a charity is to volunteer with them. You may want to start small by assisting with an event; but if you really want to understand the intricacies of their operations, challenges, and future path, joining the board will give you considerable insight and make your donation even more fulfilling because of your personal connection. I have certainly found this to be true in my work with the Eugene Education Foundation. As the mother of a student, the wife of a principal, and a board member, I feel very connected to the mission and know that our donations are going to support a worthwhile cause.
It is also important to make sure any organization you plan to donate to is a legitimate nonprofit and that they will use your donation responsibly. You can independently review its Form 990, financials, and annual report, or you can use one of the many online tools that rate charities based on this research. A few popular sources are guidestar.org, charitynavigator.org, and charitywatch.org.
Don’t forget to consult with your financial planner about the amount you plan to donate and the most effective giving method. I enjoy supporting my clients’ generosity and empowering them to donate, but part of this process is considering the impact gifts will have on other financial goals. By discussing the various giving methods, we can often help increase tax savings, which can allow you to donate even more. For more information on charitable giving tax strategies, refer to this article. To learn more about our process for incorporating your charitable goals into your overall financial plan, read our downloadable Guide to Living Fully in Retirement.
As you research, volunteer, have meetings, and write checks, don’t forget to reflect on the enjoyment of giving. It is a privilege to be in a position to help nonprofits and positively impact others. In fact, studies have shown that philanthropy helps people achieve a greater sense of personal satisfaction and is even closely aligned with living longer. That’s something we can all feel good about!
Disclosure: All opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes and constitute the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of the report. These opinions are subject to change without notice and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security. The material has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable; however, Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be taken as such.