Give Smart: Three Tips to Make Donations Count | Sojourners

Give Smart: Three Tips to Make Donations Count

A lot of us don't have as much disposable income as we had two or three years ago. Some of us have a lot less. But Christmas is coming, and we still want to give. "It is more blessed to give than to receive," Jesus said (Acts 20:35). Giving makes us feel rich.

Giving is up in 2010, and for that we rejoice. But, warns an article in yesterday's Business Wire, "The small rebound hasn't been enough to help many nonprofits that are grappling with staff and service cuts even as demand for their services has increased."

It would be great if we could give more. Some of us, if we're honest with ourselves, could do just that. Most of us, though, could give smarter.

How can we make our donations do the most good? Here are three suggestions.

1. Check out charities before donating.
Some charities are outright scams. Some are woefully mismanaged. Even ethical charities differ in their effectiveness -- that is, in their ability to get our money to the people we're hoping to help. Before writing those checks, go to Charity Navigator and search for your favorite charities. Beware of any organization that rates less than three stars.

If you have time, browse the website. The top ten lists are especially interesting: for example, "10 Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities" and "10 of the Best Charities Everyone's Heard Of." Or look through the entire list of 1770 (as of today) four-star charities.

Charity Navigator does not cover all charities, however. Some excellent not-for-profit organizations fall outside their specifications. If you are interested in a charity that is not listed there, check it out some other way. GuideStar offers information (including tax returns) on a wide range of charities. MinistryWatch profiles and rates primarily Christian ministries and charitable organizations. Or check out Charity Navigator's article, "6 Questions to Ask Charities Before Donating."

2. Give bigger checks to fewer charities.
If you're used to contributing to several charities, it feels somehow wrong to take several off the list. But $1000 dollars given to one charity does more good than $100 dollars given to ten charities, and $100 dollars given to one charity is more effective than $10 dollars given to ten charities. Number 9 on Charity Navigator's "Top 10 Best Practices of Savvy Donors" is this: Concentrate your giving. They explain:

When it comes to financial investments, diversification is the key to reducing risk. The opposite is true for philanthropic investments. If you've really taken the time to identify a well-run charity that is engaged in a cause that you are passionate about, you should then feel confident in giving it a donation. Spreading your money among multiple organizations not only results in your mail box filling up with more appeals, it also diminishes the possibility of any of those groups bringing about substantive change as each charity is wasting a large percentage of your gift on fundraising and overhead expenses.

See, when you give a small gift, you barely pay for the expense of all those letters that start coming your way begging for more gifts. In order to make your gift profitable, many charities sell your name to other charities, who will send still more letters. Your mailbox will fill up rapidly, but not a whole lot will be accomplished for the people or organizations you are hoping to help.

By contrast, when you give a larger gift, the charity wants to hang on to you. No way will they sell the names of their top donors -- why risk diluting their gifts next year? They still have to deduct marketing costs, but a lot more remains to do its intended work.

3. Turn your favorite charity into a Christmas present.
Unless you really need more books, liquor, fruitcakes, or whatever your friends tend to get you, put your favorite charity on your Amazon wish list. It's easy to do with the universal wish list button. If you want to know more about how it works for me, read my blog post from last December 1.

In addition, instead of giving friends, colleagues, and neighbors gifts that are useless or fattening, consider donating to a charity on their behalf. Be careful if you choose this approach -- be sure the charity you choose is one that will also mean something to them.

This year our parish is especially concerned about a Sudanese health clinic we've been supporting. Sudan is holding an election January 9 to decide whether the southern part of the country should remain part of Sudan, or should separate and form its own independent country. The clinic is in Renk, a border town that will certainly face violence if the vote goes as expected (Aljazeera posted a fascinating article, "South Sudan braces for trouble," today; for more background information, check out my husband David's interview with Geoff Tunnicliffe, "Pray for the Peace of Sudan").

Our outreach commission is collecting funds to send to the clinic before the referendum, so it can stock up on medicine and supplies before supply channels are disrupted. Because many of us are concerned about Sudan, David and I have decided to give this card to some of our friends at church and at work.


It will cost us about the same as the small gifts we've given in previous years. We hope it will do more lasting good.

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and at The Neff Review.

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