My friend Nathaniel Whittemore over at Change.org asked me to be part of his post “One Thing You Need To Know Before you Donate to Charity this Holiday Season.”
I’ve written before about how individual donors can approach giving decisions, absent the resources of an expert staff or the luxury of extensive time to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of one approach to working with teenage delinquents over another.
So I’m actually going a slightly different route. Instead of focusing on the charity and how you’ll evaluate its work, its staff, its financial health, I suggest that before you donate this holiday season, you evaluate yourself.
The Integrated Life
The biggest trend in philanthropy goes way beyond the borders of what we often think of as “philanthropy”: the new philanthropist is anyone who strives to live all aspects of his or her life informed by the same values that inform that person’s charitable giving. They may show any of the following symptoms:
- The desire for a socially-responsible job: Studies show that MBA graduates are willing to give up 15% in salary to work for a socially responsible company or feel like they are making a positive difference in the world. Teach for America applications are up so dramatically that you have a better chance of being accepted at one of the most prestigious universities in the country than being selected to teach in one of America’s poorest school districts for next to no money. (Almost 15% acceptance rate at Teach for America compared to 16% at Penn, 23% at Duke and 20% at Georgetown)
- The desire to patronize socially responsible companies. Studies also show that consumers are more likely to develop brand loyalty and pay a premium for products from companies that they perceive as socially responsible.
- The desire to replace material gifts with meaningful gestures: I don’t have any hard numbers on this but I can tell you a great deal of my blog traffic these days comes from people searching for “charity gift certificates” and “charitable gifts.” As just one example, check out the the Givelist for over 75 wonderful ideas that don’t involve giving money. In my own family, the adults have given up buying each other Christmas presents in favor of making a donation to our family foundation.
- Support for “fair trade” and “sustainable” commerce. Shopping at farmer’s markets and refusing to order the veal.
- The desire to spend “vacation” time building homes for people in Guatemala or volunteering in an orphanage in China.
People like this used to be considered a little extreme. But our collective consciousness is expanding these days as more and more people are examining how the hundreds of little choices they make every day add up.
So here’s my One Thing: pick your charity (following whatever process feels right to you) and then follow through. Think about the values that led you to choose the charity and then extend those values to other areas of your life. Let money be the beginning of your commitment, not the end. You have so many more resources and channels to help accomplish the work of the charity. Some ideas and examples:
- Your social networks: Suggestions from friends and family are one of the most important factors in charitable giving. Your friends know you and trust your judgment, so be an advocate for the causes you care about with friends and family. Online, you can add a Facebook Cause to your profile, change your IM or Twitter icon to represent the charity or cause, add a “donate here” widget to your blog, put a URL or sentence about the cause in your personal email signature line, etc. Offline, make sure your friends and family know of your support for this cause. Ask them attend events with you or volunteer with your or donate stuff. When you update your wardrobe and donate clothing, ask your friends and family if they have anything to add to the pile, and offer to get them a receipt. Is there some political aspect to the charity’s work around which you can rally your friends? Start a petition, write letters, use your influence as a voter and encourage your neighbors to do the same. At your next social gathering ask friends to bring a piece of their work wardrobe they no longer wear and donate it to a job training program. Or they can just bring some canned goods.
- Your purchasing power: Ask your charity whether there are consumer habits or trends that are affecting them positively or negatively. If you support immigrant rights, be aware of your produce purchases at the grocery store–how was the coffee produced? How was that lettuce harvested? If you give money to a battered women’s program, you may want to change your media habits to avoid perpetuating images that portray women as objects. If you support charities that work to improve the community and provide health care to low-income workers, investigate whether there are alternatives to shopping at Wal-Mart and Target that provide better working conditions and keep profits in the local community.
- Your free time: Are you willing to volunteer your manual labor? Office work, data entry, stuffing envelopes, manning the phones during a pledge drive or member drive? Bring your friends or your spouse or your kids? If you’re concerned with animal welfare, be sure your vacations don’t harm local ecosystems or animal habitat. If you give to an environmental cause, really examine your transportation and see if you can’t use more public transportation, walk or ride your bike. If you support the troops, consider writing letters to those serving abroad.
- Your employer: More employers are promoting skills-based volunteering and your accounting firm may be willing to trade some employee time for community goodwill. They also may be interested in your ideas to boost employee morale: If you’re a tree-hugger, form a “green committee” to promote “reduce, reuse and recycle” in the office (the CFO will especially like the “reduce” part in this economy), organize a food drive as part of the annual holiday party or have the office adopt a few families from a local shelter. Encourage the company to match employee giving. If you can swing it, try to help your company integrate socially responsible practices.
- Your stuff: Goodwill and The Salvation Army aren’t the only ones who need gently used stuff: day-cares and churches and hospitals needs toys, homeless shelters needs toiletries, foster kids need backpacks and a few things to call their own. Many charities dislike spending money on office supplies and furniture, so when you’re ready for a new desk, see if your charity of choice could use your old one.
- Your talents: Can the charity benefit from any of your skills or talents? If you’re a marketer you could design a logo or if you’re web savvy you could serve as voluntary webmaster. If you’re a writer you could help with the newsletter. But one of my favorite ideas here is to offer your fun talents for the charity auction fundraiser. My mother works for a nonprofit that held a live auction in October. Since my husband and I were trained as blackjack and poker dealers in Atlantic City, the charity put together and auctioned off an “In-Home Fish Fry for 20 People” that offered our services combined with the donated catering of the family who does all the local Catholic “Fish Fry” events during Lent. I’ve never been prouder to help raise $500 for charity.
The Challenge: Baby Steps, Baby Steps
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the huge number of possible life changes that could result from carrying all our values through all aspects of our lives. Overwhelmed enough to decide it’s just not possible and give up. So here’s my challenge to all of us who consider ourselves “charitable”: pick that one charity, identify that one issue, really adopt it and follow through on it in every aspect of your life. Don’t try to do them all at once–it’s too much. But whichever one speaks to you the loudest, ignites your outrage and your passion–pick that one, and live it. Let your choices everyday be part of the solution. As Ghandi told us, “Be the change you wish to see in this world”