It's the season for giving, and Americans love to give. And not just stuff from holiday shopping sprees, either.
A survey from Causes.com and Harris Interactive found that 85 percent of Americans donated to a charitable cause in the last four years, and 34 percent are more likely to donate during the holiday season. Donations spiked by 42 percent during November and December.
When looking for worthwhile ways to make end-of-the-year donations, there are smart ways to make your money go far, says Eileen Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, who has spent 30 years advising charities.
“Most people give to charity, and they know that it's the right thing to do,” says Heisman. “They just have to stop and think about it — and that happens this time of year.”
Maximize your donation
To maximize your donation, make a few big donations instead of a lot of small ones, she says.
“It costs charities a lot of time and money to find new donors,” says Heisman. “If you believe in the mission, and think they are effective, give the biggest gift possible.”
Of course, it's also important to choose your charity carefully. Too many givers tend to be reactive, says Heisman, responding to mail campaigns and social media requests rather than choosing a cause that's meaningful to them.
“Most people who gave in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge don't know what ALS is, and most of them will never give again,” she says, noting that long-term support has more impact.
Choose something that's meaningful to you, she says, be it hunger, environmental causes or maybe supporting research for a disease that's affected your family, like heart disease or autism.
Do your research
When researching charities, first look at the website and learn about the mission, Heisman says. Then check third parties — what is the press saying about it, how does it rank on GuideStar, Charity Navigator or Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance?
Then go ahead and give the organization a call to learn more and get a feel for the team. It might feel audacious, she says, but it helps to literally be in touch with the organization you support.
“Most people never think to do this,” says Heisman. “But you can call the CEO, call the development office, or ask to talk to a board member.”
Charities are approachable, she says, even if you're giving $100, not $1,000 or $100,000. “There are people on the other side. They love talking about what they do — if they are good, they are passionate about it.”
It's also smart to check in every six months or so and see how they are doing.
“It might be that everyone needs a new version of Microsoft Word, or they need better cellphones to get the job done,” says Heisman.
“Overhead is important and it gets demonized. Find a trusted charity, and when you give them money, let them decide what to do with it.”
The BBB Wise Giving Alliance released a report recently that found that the most important thing that helps donors verify their trust when donating to a charity is how money is spent, as opposed to “results achieved,” which received just 10 percent.
How much money goes to overhead and how effective a charity is are two different things, says Art Taylor, president of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.
“If you're only focusing on finances, you're missing a lot,” says Taylor. “It's important to know not just how charities spend, but what they do.”
“After-school programs, soup kitchens and health clinics can't run without computers and competent staff,” he said. “How much a charity spends on overhead doesn't tell you if a shelter is safe or keeping people off the streets, or if a food pantry is serving healthy food.”
If you don't have a lot of money to give, there are still a lot of ways to make a difference. One way is to commit to volunteer, says Heisman. But choose something that's convenient and that you can stick with for six months to a year. Otherwise, you may be wasting the organization's time in training you.
Even cleaning out your closets is an opportunity to give — organizations like the Salvation Army or Housing Works in New York City accept donations of clothes, toys, and furniture that they use to support causes.
If nothing else, says Heisman, perform random acts of kindness, or acts of activism. Petition for zoning in your neighborhood, pick up trash in the park, watch for someone who might need help opening a door, or a parent struggling to get a stroller up a flight of stairs.
“You don't have to be involved with charity to do something good,” says Heisman.