Are your mailbox, email and phone blowing up with giving requests? Mine sure are, and as I wade through all the spiffy tag lines and heartwarming photos I wonder, how are we deciding to whom we’ll give? Is it who we know best, or who’s doing the best work?
One thing’s for certain, whether we’re putting serious thought into it or not, we’re funneling a lot of cash into charities. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University reports that more than 95% of households give to charity, with the average household contribution being over $2,900 annually. That’s no small potatoes, and it’s also not just America. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll the US population ranked #13 overall in terms of giving money to charity. Seems that around the world, we are without a doubt, a bunch of givers.
But as generous as we are, what are we really getting done? Do we know how the billions we donate each year are being used? I suspect that even with our best intentions many of us do not. In fact, if you were pressed to list three things the charities you support have done in the last year to further their mission, would you be able to do it?
Honestly, I’m not sure I can either, especially this year when I’ve supported a variety of organizations. That’s why this holiday season I’m making sure that I don’t just give money to my favorite charities. Instead, I’m investing it in the causes that matter most, and with organizations I think will yield the greatest return.
I’m inviting you too, to join me in this evolution in our thinking. No longer will we be handing over our dollars without understanding clearly how they will be used. Those pictures of cute kids and puppies? Yeah they’ll get our attention, but you’ll have to give us the rest of the story before we give you the cash. From now on, our investments will be based on fact and warm fuzzy.
How do we make the leap from giving to investing? For starters, we all probably need a bit more information about the organizations we support. Below are six questions to ask before we pull out our pocketbook.
- Why do you need funding? If they stumble here, we’re wasting time. Organizations that can’t clearly articulate why they need funding need to shut down. That’s like asking the bank to borrow money, and not being able to tell them what you’re going to do with it. There should be a critical need, a long-term goal, or an urgent activity that needs ongoing support and peeks our interest. Something like the food pantry’s weekly service of families in need, or a hospital expanding its services are two great examples. They’re understandable, and relatable.
- What have you done in the last 12 months to serve your community? If they answer this question by reciting the mission statement, run away. Fast. The mission is their intention. We’re looking for action. For example, if they are in business to raise awareness – how are they doing it? Are you funding the founder’s speaking jaunt across the country, or are they conducting community events? Let’s be clear and comfortable with the activities we’re supporting. We’re searching for organizations that have a history of success with other people’s investments. And, if it’s a new charitable endeavor, be sure to ask the Founder how they have supported other non-profits, and who is on their advisory board. That will give us a clue whether we want to hop on board.
- When can I meet some of the people you serve? If the answer is never, question why. Whether through video, photomontage or testimonials there should be some way that those served can speak out. Even with sensitive issues such as domestic violence, there are people who want to share their stories. Hearing from those served, in addition to those fundraising, provides a check and balance to further assure us that the funds we invest are reaching those who need them most.
- Who runs the organization, and who serves on your board? If it’s all family members on the board, think twice. If there are permanent board seats, think three times. Here’s the thing – for organizations to be run effectively and efficiently they need a myriad of gifts and talents at the table. Those may or may not be found within the same family. By the same token, the skill set needed to run the organization evolves as the organization grows. So, if all the board members and the leadership stay the same over the life of an organization, you miss the opportunity for new thoughts and ideas to be introduced. Is there value in consistency? You bet! But there is also value in diversity and innovation. Organizations that try too hard to keep things the way they are generally have control issues, and unfortunately they often miss the chance to expand their mission impact. Probably not a good investment.
- Where can I find a copy of your financials? If this question makes them nervous, you should be nervous. Any non-profit worth supporting should have audited financials that they’re proud to show you. If they have a website, you should be able to easily find the information there, or in their annual report, which hopefully they can send electronically versus wasting paper printing. There are two figures that are important to us – total dollars raised, and total spent on mission (programs, research, awareness, etc.) The rest is administration. No matter how much they pretty it up, it’s administration – which is not necessarily a bad thing. For me, my threshold is about 30% spent on overhead costs. I know that seems high to some, but having worked in and around non-profits for more than 20 years I understand the need to spend money on staffing, organizational capacity and infrastructure. I don’t mind funding a portion of those things as long as everything else is in order.
- How can I get involved in addition to writing a check? At the end of the day, we are so much more than a blank check. Our time and talents are as valuable as our treasure. In fact, sometimes more so. Because the more invested we are in an organization, the more likely we are to continue supporting AND encourage our friends to do the same. While all organizations can’t provide experiences such as Habitat for Humanity – where you can work directly with a family in building their home – you should be offered, at the very least, an opportunity to help spread the word. Because any cause worth supporting needs more awareness. Invest your resources in a place where the whole of you is valued and appreciated. It’s a much richer and rewarding experience.
Okay, that’s my six. Now it’s your turn. If you’re on board with investing in causes that matter, share with us how you determine which organizations are worthy of your support. And while you’re at it, give a plug for the organizations that mean the most to you by posting a link in the comments section below.
Part of loving ourselves, is learning to be a good steward over our blessings. It’s seeing the value in ourselves and in the resources we’ve been given to make a difference. So whether it’s #GivingTuesday or a random Thursday, let’s do our homework, and make sure we’re doing the most good with what we have as we work to achieve more.
Loving on Me as I Love You! Hugs and Blessings… ❤
PS – Next week I’m writing the companion piece to this one. It’s entitled, So You Want to Start a Non-Profit. Stay tuned.