While everyone else is refining their financial New Year’s Resolutions, I’ll be thinking about charitable giving this year. I know, that topic is so December, the month when most of us hastily decide which worthy organizations make our donations list. But that’s the problem. In the midst of the holidays, it’s hard to find time to research causes and reflect on our giving behavior. How do we pick our charities? Do we support the ones we care about most, or the ones that send us the most address labels or reminder notes? And do we think, during the busy season, to include our kids in our philanthropy?
Each year I plan to come up with a mindful charitable giving plan. Yet in 2009 I still found myself contemplating Christmas gifts more than charitable gifts and stuffing checks into envelopes to get my tax break.
But not this year. I resolve to be more thoughtful when giving to charity. But how to tackle this task?
First, I need to develop a list of causes that I care about most. I have a pretty good idea of my own list already, but I’m not so sure about the pet causes of my 6-year-old and 4-year-old. To get kids excited about helping others, give them the freedom to pick pet causes. I imagine my daughter might want to give to the Humane Society or another charity related to animals. I don’t know of a group that supports superheroes that have fallen on hard times, but I could probably suggest an environmental group to my son since he loves being outside.
Next comes the challenge of finding charities that demonstrate both financial need and fiscal prudence. As a financial writer and manager of the household budget, I can’t pick programs that will waste my hard-earned money.
The answers are online. The St. Paul-based Charities Review Council rates organizations based on more than a dozen standards including money management, governance, and effective fundraising. The Charities Review Council’s assessment of more than 400 charities can be found online at SmartGivers.org. While there can be exceptions, the council’s revised rule of thumb is to look for charities that spend at least 65 percent of their budget on programming expenses.
You can also visit CharityNavigator.org, Guidestar.org, Give.org and the Minnesota attorney general’s office.
Finally, there’s the challenge of deciding how much to give. This can be especially challenging in these rocky times. We all want more cash at-the-ready in case of a job loss or other calamity, but we also know charities are struggling. Be generous, but be reasonable. Only you can decide how much you can safely afford. Despite a pay cut and pricier health insurance, I’m going to try to increase my giving this year because I feel my family has been relatively untouched during these rough months.
With kids’ gift money still tucked in holiday cards, now is the perfect time to introduce the concept of splitting money into pots for sharing, saving, and spending.
Children can also contribute by dismantling the couch and digging inside pockets. Collecting change to save and donate to charity can help young kids learn to count and name coins. And the exercise teaches an invaluable concept — that small amounts of money really do add up over time.
Kara McGuire is the personal finance columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and a St. Paul mother of three. Follow her at Twitter.com/kablog.