December 18, 2005
Janet Kidd Stewart
There are two weeks left in the crunch time for philanthropy. Do you have a game plan?
Of the roughly $250 billion annually that charities receive from U.S. individual and corporate donors, three-quarters comes from individuals. And almost half of their giving is done between Thanksgiving and New Year's, according to Charity Navigator, a philanthropy evaluation group.
This year-end-giving dash can have issues: giving less than we had planned because of household budget overruns, giving more than we can afford because of emotional pleas, or simply writing a check too quickly without thinking about how the organization fits our values, to name a few.
With hurricane and other disaster relief efforts still soaking up large amounts of total giving, philanthropy experts are pleading with donors to make wise decisions about where their money is going.
"In light of the extraordinarily high level of donations made after Hurricane Katrina, we're fearful that donors are tapped out," said Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator's external relations director. "Non-relief charities continue to need our support to survive, and we urge Americans to maintain their levels of giving to groups that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, protect the environment and support the arts."
Although you may be reading a lot about year-end tips to maximize the tax benefits of your giving plans, these ideas have more to do with making your charity dollars reflect your values than with making the tax code work for you. Some of them, however, can accomplish both:
Decide what is enough
Many people write checks to organizations without a total giving number for the year in their minds. Picking a comfortable percentage of your wealth as a maximum giving guide will help set priorities.
At www.newtithing.org, donors can plug in their earned income and their total household assets for suggestions on how much to give. The site uses tax benefit estimates to show donors how much more they can give to charity because of tax incentives. It calculates giving suggestions based on income and assets, because the traditional notion of tithing--giving 10 percent of income--doesn't necessarily fit wealthy households that have modest annual incomes compared with their total assets.
Worried about committing to a big donation level and then having to back out if you don't reach your expected income?
One solution is to base next year's donations on this year's salary. In other words, use these last weeks of the year to calculate your total income and then peg your 2006 giving plans to that number.
As the year progresses, take a monthly share of that giving goal and sock it away. Make your donations at the end of each quarter, spreading out your giving throughout the year.
Make your giving reflect your passions or your love of family and friends, said Tim Stone, NewTithing Group's executive director.
With more than 1 million non-profit organizations in operation, it is fairly easy to find one that performs services in just about any niche, Stone said.
If you long ago gave up a dream to win a Nobel Prize in physics, for example, support a program that brings science skills to disadvantaged students, he said.
Most philanthropy experts suggest keeping a list of no more than about a half-dozen causes, so you can monitor performance and maximize impact. You also may want to keep a little powder dry to help your friends' favorite causes when they ask.
Make it a group effort
Another problem charities face is donors' lack of time, Stone said.
"Often, in a two-income household, there just isn't enough time to devote even to investigating the right charity," he said.
One idea: Make your charity research a group effort with friends or family, taking turns letting members of your group investigate and recommend worthy organizations. The exercise can deepen relationships while it accomplishes your philanthropic goals.
You'll have a deeper sense of gratification from your giving if you can articulate results.
In its annual list of holiday giving tips, Charity Navigator suggests contacting the charity you supported and ask what the organization has accomplished toward its goals.
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