Rethinking charitable giving

As Andy, Steve and I were relaxing and enjoying a quiet Christmas morning, I lazily thumbed through the newspaper–a luxury I rarely get, even on weekends.  One particular story caught my attention immediately: Charities lack funds, supply.  I keep an eye on charitable giving because of my former profession and because of my involvement with some local not-for-profits (NFPs), so I was aware of the food pantry supply issue, but this story was particularly frustrating to me.

Think about this quote from the article: “In this traditional time of excessive food, parties and gift-giving, agencies that improve the lives of the less fortunate have rarely seen such tough times. Demand for goods and services is way up – a problem that has become more acute since last year – and supply is no longer sufficient.”

So with gifts piled as high as the eye can see in your average middle-class home, why can’t more people find it in their hearts to give to charity?  How it is possible that there are people who do nothing beyond plunking a few quarters in the red kettle once a year?  I have some theories, particularly about my own generation, the Gen-X’ers.

  • Young people are so busy building their careers, getting married, buying their first houses, etc. that they become very self-focused.  It’s a stressful time in everyone’s life, and money can be an especially stressful subject.  They think that they can’t afford to give to charity because they are saving for a wedding, a house, a baby. . .in reality, the average middle-class person/couple/family has more disposable income than they realize.  It’s just a matter of how they choose to spend it.
  • Many were not raised in a household where the importance of giving to charity was properly instilled, so they are not going to actively seek out giving opportunities.  Even worse, many NFPs are missing the boat, because many of these young people have never been directly or passionately asked to give.  Most NFPs are focused on the baby boomers and getting a piece of the huge expected transfer of wealth.  Gen X’ers are capable and willing donors, they just need to be properly engaged.
  • People think that in order to make an impact, they have to give a lot of money.  Not true!  Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make a difference.  This year Andy and I sponsored a family for Aurora Family Services’ Family to Family Thanksgiving.  Just $35 provides a family of four with everything they need for a full Thanksgiving meal.  And take it from someone who used to focus specifically on raising annual gifts–most NFPs rely on annual donors to provide a reliable base of small gifts.  When combined, those annual gifts can have a significant impact.
  • Another thing I learned in my fundraising career is that many NFPs are not very good at stewarding their donors.  It’s not uncommon for people to make a gift and receive a generic, unemotional thank you letter in return–if anything at all.  NFPs need to do a better job of making donors aware of how their gifts make a difference so people will want to continue to give and/or inspire others to give.  Last year Aurora Family Services published a book of real letters that they received from families who were recipients of the Thanksgiving baskets.  Talk about inspiring!  Not only did it make me feel good as a donor to read those letters, this year I used those letters to encourage others to join the effort and make a gift and/or volunteer. 
  • People underestimate the joy they will receive from giving to others.  Andy and I often talk about the fact that he and I might get more out of our gifts of time and money than the people we are helping do.  This year we made a gift to the Humane Animal Welfare Society of Waukesha County in honor of Steve’s birthday.  The stories and photos of rescued/adopted pets in their newsletter are enough to make your heart soar.  And we both agreed that the highlight of our Christmas was buying toys for an unnamed boy for a special program through the Salvation Army.  It’s pretty cool how it works.  You buy three gifts: one “large” ($25-30), one “medium” ($15-20) and one “small” (under $10).  You label the toys with an age and a gender (for example, boy age 5). The Salvation Army puts all of the gifts they collect into one big room, and struggling parents get to “shop” for their kids, choosing one large, one medium, and one small gift for each child.  Imagine what it would feel like to not have enough money to buy your child a Christmas gift.  Andy and I felt so good about the fact that we could make someone’s Christmas a little brighter.

So I challenge you to think about your own charitable giving, and what else you could do to make a difference in our community.  Your contributions don’t have to be large.  If everyone did something small to help out, we would have a lot fewer problems in this world.  Andy and I have decided to scale back on Christmas gifts next year and get a little more involved in some of these holiday programs that we care so much about.  Truth be told, those projects give us more joy than the gifts we exchange.



3 responses to “Rethinking charitable giving

  1. jef stark // December 26, 2007 at 12:18 am (edit)

    re: your comments on charity today. was wondering what your thoughts were with respect to publicicy circulating my (our) philanthropic contributions to a close circle of friends? we do this to hopefully inspire others as people think it’s perfectly acceptable to make oodles of money and then give $18 to united way each year. they really don’t know what the expected or appropriate “level” is.

    Good point, Jeff. A great way to encourage your friends to give more is to make a challenge gift. For example, if you know your friends are stingy in their charitable giving, make a $500 gift to a NFP with a mission all of you support. Then challenge 5 couples to match that gift by making a gift of $100 each. This will not only slowly move them up the giving ladder, but it will allow you to set an example as well. If they have a good experience and feel appreciated by the NFP, they will likely step it up in the future.

    Another way to help people get a sense of appropriate levels of giving is to quantify impact. For example, let’s say that $250 can support a family of four at a homeless shelter for 2 months, and it’s also equivalent to 4 weekend dinners out for a couple living in Milwaukee. Your friends who make “oodles of money” likely spend at least $250 a month on drinks and dinner out. Understanding what that same sum of money can do for someone else might help them to think differently about charitable giving.

  2. Great entry! Phil and I also cut back on our own spending during the holidays to buy gifts for the agency I work for. Like the Salvation Army, our clients go into a “gift room” and pick out items for their children and then we wrap them for them to take home. It’s such an amazing feeling to see the parents feeling empowered to choose things for their kids and actually go “shopping!”

    I totally agree on getting people our age to really start getting involved with charitable giving. Working at a non-profit, my friends have started to give because of my encouragement–like you mentioned, it doesn’t have to be a ton of money–literally every dollar counts…it’s so important to give back–thanks for writing this:)

  3. so true. inspiring.

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