The season of year-end giving

If your mailbox and inbox look anything like mine these days, bursting with envelopes and emails from dozens of charitable organizations, you know that this is the time of year many nonprofits depend upon for year-end donations. While we may bemoan the onslaught of solicitations, they are a means to an important end – without year-end giving, many nonprofits would not be able to feed the hungry, care for the aged, delight our senses through the arts, educate our children, defend our rights, or carry out other work that enriches and inspires us.

How to choose which causes to support

Choosing which causes or organizations to support, or even choosing whether or not to give at all, can feel overwhelming. Therefore, I offer you 18 things to think about when considering your year-end donations:

  1. What brought you the most joy this year?
  2. Can you choose 2-3 priority areas for your giving (e.g. hunger and homelessness, visual arts, helping the elderly)? That does not mean that you cannot give to other things, as well. It just means that you can give most of your donations to these priority causes, and give smaller amounts to other causes.
  3. What charities did you donate to last year? Did you get updates from those charities this year? Are they still doing good work?
  4. How do you define your “community”? Is it geographic? Religious? Based on personal interests or passions? Based on people in your networks? All of the above? Can you align your giving to support your community/communities?
  5. Do you have clothes or household items you can donate?
  6. What did you spend on buying coffee this year? (Or ice cream? Or pizza? Or sandwiches?) Once you come up with a rough estimate of that amount, compare it to the amount you plan to donate to worthy causes this year.
  7. Did you need help this year? Did any nonprofits provide you (or your friends or family) with assistance?
  8. What sorts of causes do you want to give to? Basic needs (like food and shelter), social services (like job training or mental health counseling), the arts, the environment, education… Do you want to focus on one area or spread your donations among various causes?
  9. Does your family have a tradition of giving to certain causes? Do you want to start a tradition?
  10. Is there someone’s memory whom you would like to honor with your charitable giving? How can you best honor them?
  11. Do you want to pool your donations with friends or family to make a bigger impact?
  12. Do you volunteer somewhere? Would you consider making a donation to the place where you volunteer?
  13. Were there stories in the news this year that really touched you? Or concerned you? Or inspired you? Are there charitable causes that are aligned with those stories?
  14. Are there services you use frequently, such as public broadcasting, that rely on donations to keep doing what they are doing?
  15. Was there a play, a concert, an exhibition, or another cultural experience that lifted your spirits or made you think this year? Would you consider supporting the organization or venue that made it happen?
  16. If you have children or grandchildren, can you support an organization that supported their growth, so that other children can learn and grow, too?
  17. Does culture, history, or religious observance inform your giving choices?
  18. Why give?

Of course, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions – they are simply guidelines to inform your thinking, either now or year-round.

Do some research

Once you have narrowed down causes or organizations that matter to you and that you wish to support, you can do a little research to ensure that these are well-respected, well-run charities. There are myriad online sources for this, such as Charity Navigator. Nonprofits have to meet certain minimum standards to participate in the Combined Federal Campaign or United Way campaigns, so their inclusion in these campaigns also can be telling. However, I believe that a nonprofit’s “numbers,” such as the amount they spend on overhead or personnel expenses, do NOT tell the whole story. For example, a nonprofit that provides mental health counseling will spend more on personnel than many others, because their main expense is personnel (mental health counselors). I think one of the best things you can do is… ask around. As your friends, family, colleagues, and others if they are familiar with an organization, do they know anyone who is involved with the organization, etc.

Just give

No matter what choices you make, the choice to give is always a good one. I hope your giving choices bring joy to you and to others.

Lauren Brownstein has worked in philanthropy and fundraising for more than 25 years and helps clients maximize their impact through her consulting firm, PITCH: Fundraising and Philanthropy Consulting. Her favorite causes to support include leukemia research, foster children, and her alma mater.