Giving to charity: doing the best you can

By now, your mailboxes (IRL and virtual) are probably crammed with year-end catalogs and heart-rending appeals for donations. But just as with spending, we want to maximize the use of our hard-earned dollars when we make charitable donations.

As I’ve suggested before, it’s worth checking out any potential charity with Guidestar.org and Charity Navigator. These ratings groups aren’t infallible, but they can give you some idea of how well your money will be spent. There are lots of well-known charities whose funds seem to go mainly to publicity and their CEO’s salary. Really, look up a few that come to mind—you’ll be shocked. And just because the charity says they focus on minorities, or women, or autism, or your favorite religious orientation doesn’t mean they’re good stewards. As Harry Truman once said, when anyone prayed too loud in the Amen corner, you’d better go home and lock your smokehouse.

Many of us are considering directing more of our charitable contributions to advocacy organizations this year and going forward.  However desirable and necessary such donations are, they may not be tax-deductible. For example, donations to the American Civil Liberties Union are not tax deductible, although donations to their information and education arm, the ACLU Foundation, are. Another organization that interests me greatly, the National Lawyers Guild (motto: Human Rights Over Property Interests) is also an advocacy organization, and donations are not deductible except to their foundation. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which constitutes its mission as fighting hate through education, is a tax-deductible charity organization. You want to look for the term ” 501 (c) 3″ if you’re looking for the tax deduction.  Of course, if you care passionately about current issues, you may not feel the tax deductibility of your gift is the most important factor, or you can allocate some portion to advocacy and the rest to educational or service delivery organizations.

Most of us have a tendency to give small amounts to any request that crosses our paths. However, I’d encourage you to consider a more planned approach. Giving larger amounts to fewer charities actually helps them: it saves on fundraising, processing, and other administrative costs.  Consider where your priorities lie or where you believe there is the most need: rights advocacy (disability, women’s, ethnic & racial groups); international poverty; animal rescue; anti-violence; gun control; legal change are all areas to consider.  While you’re at it, try not to use a credit card until you determine if the charity will be charged the fee for use by that card company (some don’t charge charities, some do).

As with any money management, there will always be more demand than funds available, so do think about your priorities. Many of these organizations will be particularly embattled or short of funds under the next administration, so need for your thoughtful contributions can only grow.

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