The character, Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the epitome of the cranky miser, but as my father liked to point out, there are really two Scrooges, the lonely unhappy man at the beginning of the story and the happy generous one at the end. There is a little Scrooge in all of us, both in our occasional stingy crankiness and in our capacity for joyful giving. It is easy to get cynical at this time of year under the assault of year-end fund-raising that bombards us through every medium from street corner to smart phone. It’s time to think about a New Year’s resolution to transform your giving into something more meaningful for 2015. Here are five steps you may find helpful:
- Create an annual giving plan. One of the frustrating parts of charitable giving for many of us is that we feel we are just reacting to random requests. When we are giving mostly in response to telephone calls, radio or TV fund-raisers, letters from our alma maters, and emails from organizations we have given to in the past, it’s hard to feel we are having any impact or feel good about giving. Try setting a simple budget for charitable giving and divide it among the types of activities you want to support. What problems do you think can be addressed by charitable organizations? What kinds of efforts do you want to support?
- Find the organizations that best support your plan. There are some good tools online for evaluating charitable organizations in terms of how efficient they are at turning your donations into programs that deliver on their mission. Have a look at Charity Navigator, for example. You will find that some of the organizations that clog up your voicemail and relentlessly call you at dinner time spend a high percentage of the money they raise paying themselves to do more fund-raising. Look for organizations that put most of what you give into programs you believe will make a difference in the areas you want to impact.
- Focus your giving to make it meaningful. Rather than making lots of small donations to many different organizations, make larger donations to fewer organizations which match your priorities for changing the world or at least some corner of it. Then keep track of these organizations and their efforts. Read their communications and annual reports. Give them feedback. Consider what kind of relationship you want to have with each organization. Do you want to be a member? Do you want to volunteer? If you want more direct involvement in your giving, have a look at websites like DonorsChoose.Org or Kiva.org.
- Simplify the giving process. Create a schedule for making your donations. Spread them out through the year so they fit into your monthly budget. Once you have a plan and schedule, you can largely ignore all the fund-raising calls because you have already made your commitments that match your goals for giving. At some point you might want to consider setting up a “donor-advised fund account.” You fund this account when it makes financial and tax sense for you and then make donations from the fund to specific charities according to your plan. Many of the large financial services companies have affiliated operations which provide these services, for example the Schwab Charitable Trust.
- Get started now even in a small way. Even if you don’t think you can afford much now, getting in the habit of meaningful giving now will mean that later when you can afford to give more, you will have already developed the habit and the process of giving that feels right for you.
So become that Scrooge as the end of the story, someone who has discovered the real joy of giving. If you need a little inspiration, here is a recording of my father reading his short version of A Christmas Carol in 1989 at our family holiday gathering. (If you are reading this post in email, you may need to open the blog post on my website to play it.) It’s about 25 minutes long and might be just what you need on your commute to get into the spirit of the season. Cheers!