The poor economy means many folks rethink every aspect of their spending including charitable donations, my husband and I included. Over the years we typically gave a number of small, but consistent gifts to a wide range of organizations. Added together it was a fair sum doled out $10 here, $50 there with no overall long term plan.
Last year, this approach struck us as a bit futile. We questioned if these small donations had much impact on bigger problems exacerbated by the recession. Dire predictions of dwindling giving, news of city and statewide budget cuts, and heartfelt stories of empty food bank shelves and families loosing their homes confirmed our informal observations of more frequent pleas received by mail and on the phone.
In the last year we decided to lose the shotgun approach and focus on one area, education. This meant making some tough choices about cutting the majority of our support of other worthwhile causes. Revising our focus means that although the amount of money we donate remains roughly the same, we are making larger, more frequent donations of cash and in-kind goods to a much smaller pool of groups.
It also means we look very closely at the non-profits we choose to support, follow how the donations get used, and pay attention to if, when, and how we get thanked. Here is how we decide if a charity remains on our give list or ends up with zero, zip, or nada.
In our case all of the schools we donate to are places we or family members attended. I’ve donated annually to my college Alma mater for almost 30 years. The bold font, special donor society, and asterisk by my name denote long-term consistent giving of 10+ years in the school’s annual report. This simple acknowledgment in print makes me feel a bit special and reminds me to write another check for the coming fiscal year.
The newest school we give to, located in rural Oregon, is one my mother attended as a girl and where I spent several months as a third grader. New coats, gloves and clothing, copy paper, pencils and other practical items help keep kids warm and help hard-working teachers feel supported. We get heartfelt thanks and warm hugs which pay us back a thousand times what we put in.
Believe in the Mission
This seemingly obvious standard serves as a guidepost. If the group’s mission changes or gets side-tracked we rethink our support.
Once we stopped giving to a University to protest the unreasonably high salary for a football coach at a time when other critical academic programs were being cut. It may be a small loss, but the alumni development office knew exactly why we stopped giving for a number of years. Knowing why someone stops giving is just about as important as getting first-time donors to write a check.
Shows Consistent Leadership & Good Money Management
The groups we support tend to have stable long-term leaders and an objective, diverse Board of Directors. Before you hand over your cash check the charity’s track record.
Each state licenses and regulates non-profits and charities; keeping records of complaints and potential scams. Usually this falls under the purview of office of the Secretary of State. Another good resource is your local Better Business Bureau. If you need more information to make an informed decision there are several national organizations that review and rate charities. I have used one called www.guidestar.org over the years to review the financial information of groups we consider supporting.
If you find a group churns through directors, consistently overspends, or uses donations to cover high overhead or administrative costs dig further. One group we stopped contributing to went through 5 heads in about 10 years. Poor and costly hiring mistakes were exacerbated by a Board filled with too many self-interested parties to be fully objective. As this school sorts itself out we will put our cash elsewhere.
Thank Every Donor Promptly
Thank you notes to donors should be another no-brainer, but surprisingly a large number of groups fail to acknowledge donations promptly. When I worked in fund raising years ago donor thanks went out the door within about two business days, a week at the outside. If I don’t get a thank you I will not donate again. If I wait weeks or months for an acknowledgment of a gift your next donation may be a lot less or gone altogether.
I actually had an organization reprimand me for asking them to acknowledge a donation. I understand people are short staffed and busy, but if you have time to write me and chastise me for asking for a tax receipt, you missed a good opportunity to thank me for donating. Guess who is off my list this year?
Take charge of your donations, give to your favorite charities, and go out and help others today!