Friday, December 3, 2010
It’s the season for giving – let’s do it well
Photo courtesy of Microsoft Clip Art
It never fails – in November and December, charitable appeals rev up like nothing else. Even though need has no season, a spirit of goodwill fills our Thanksgiving and Christmas hearts (and our Hanukkah, Eid, and Kwanzaa ones, too), and that same goodwill spikes our generosity.
Nothing wrong with that – but we have so many important needs in this world that it’s overwhelming to imagine them all. How can we give without melting into a puddle of despair? Here are some guidelines which I believe will help:
1. Remember, it’s a gift, not an obligation. The basic duty for human beings is to live as harmlessly as possible. If you are a hermit living quietly alone, you are already fulfilling your duty. Everything after that is gravy. You don’t have to give a penny to charity. Just like giving myself permission to eat a cookie gives me the power to say “no”, remembering that charity isn’t mandatory frees me from resentment and allows me to be more generous.
2. Don’t give to solicitors outside grocery stores, post offices, banks, malls, etc. I know it’s hard to say no to a living person smiling at you and asking you to help the homeless. I know it’s easy to pull a stray dollar from your wallet and push it into the slot on top of the wooden box such solicitors have in handy. The true way to help the homeless, or any other kind of need group, is to know where your money is going. Legitimate, rock-solid charities almost never solicit in public places. Many public solicitors are also associated with religious groups whose values you may not be completely okay with. (Question for churchgoers: Does your church ask you to sit on a chair in front of a grocery store and ask for money all day?) Keep your spare dollars in your wallet and save them for a charity you know and agree with.
3. Research before you give. How do you find out which charities are legit? The same way you find out which airfare is lowest or where to find an out-of-print book – research. The Huffington Post alerted me to the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), which recently posted a slide show on the nine worst charities. Of course, they will tell you about the good ones on their site. Charity Navigator is another great resource. Knowing that your donation will actually help the needy, and not fill the pockets of administrators, is a great feeling indeed.
4. Think small and/or local. Besides researching, another way to learn about a charity is to actually see it in action. Look up all of the charities in or near your hometown. A food bank is an especially good choice, because you will see how many people get help as they pick up food. I tend to trust small charities more, too, because they don’t spend money on expenditures like, say, TV commercials. Small charities also fulfill needs that are not immediately obvious. One good one that I’ve heard of recently is Guitars for Vets , which gives guitars and music lessons to veterans. (Two Dogs likes this, too!)
5. Give to organizations you really care about, not the ones you think you should care about. If you think that your local opera company is worth paying for, or if you love a tiny Internet radio station that plays songs you haven’t heard since age thirteen, that’s where your money should go. Some people insist that feeding people, preventing disease, and/or protecting the environment must come first – of course, those are all vital. But creative expression, both ours and others’, make this a world worth saving.
6. Pick a charity per month. Given that there are so many avenues of need, it’s hard to pick just one – or even a handful. To make it easier, concentrate your giving on one cause each month. For example, give to people who make blankets for the homeless in January, the American Heart Association in February, the March of Dimes in March (can’t help it, it’s too fun to be seasonal).
7. Give to organizations that aim to solve problems. You know the old saying, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” Of course, if a man is starving, you’ll need to give him a fish now so he will be ready to learn to fish later. But I agree with the basic premise. Giving people food and blankets day after day and year after year does not address the need of jobs (for those who are employable) or affordable housing. I like charities whose goal is having their helpees not need it in the end.
8. Put the “fun” in fundraising. Writing a check and putting it in the mail or donating via PayPal are relatively dull activities. Why not make fundraising sparkle? Last year, I suggested that the people in my Sun magazine group get together at a local vegetarian restaurant (some of the group is veggie), and bring $20 each to donate to the magazine. (The Sun doesn’t accept advertising, just high-quality writing and photography. In this country, this means it struggles financially). If you dining room is big enough, why not host a similar fundraising dinner with your friends? Good people, good food, good talk, good cause – good times!
9. There’s no such thing as a totally selfish purchase. Sometimes I have blushed with shame when I buy a book or go to a restaurant. That money should have gone to charity! my guilty voice screams. Then I remember that I am not the only one who benefits. When I buy a book, I support the career of a hard-working author who brings great ideas to life on the page. When you download music, you help keep a roof over your favorite artist’s head. Even when you buy a laptop or big-screen TV at Best Buy, you preserve the employment of the people on the floor and behind the cash register. Spending keeps money flowing and helps others not need charity. That money flow will come back to you when you create things that people buy – and yes, that applies to Excel spreadsheets that your employer pays you $X per hour to create.
With that in mind, let’s make this season great for our communities, our nation, and our world!