Amid economic gloom, the news just gets worse. Last month, the unemployment rate rose in most states (in some cases as high as 11 percent), hitting millions of Americans in their pocketbooks. We also learned that in 2010, one in fifteen Americans slipped below the poverty line. Meanwhile financial giving fell by 11 percent in the past two years, according to Giving USA. How are these facts related? You might think that, with less disposable income at hand, this is a time to further scale back charitable giving.
The opposite is true. When incomes and bonuses decrease, revenues falter, and businesses stumble, it’s more important than ever to give—not necessarily more, but in a way that matters more. When incomes are down and wallets are stretched, the effectiveness of our giving is what really counts.
This means making more meaningful giving decisions. Whether you’re a parent volunteering at your child’s school, a recent college graduate taking an unpaid nonprofit internship, or a technology entrepreneur giving millions to reform public education, think about how to maximize the significance of your gift.
First, transform your giving process from reactive to proactive. Instead of waiting until the holiday season—when mail solicitations flood in from worthy organizations—and making a flurry of gifts because this is the time of year to give, sit down and take stock. Identify your passion, learn about it, and direct your time, mind, and dollars to aligned causes and organizations. Give to what interests or excites you most and make it a long-term affair, rather than a “philanthropic one-night stand.” Actively deciding to give to causes that move you deeply is far more fulfilling than the momentary gratification derived from signing a check and mailing it to a nonprofit about which you know little more than what’s on the brochure they sent you.
But while engaging your passion is important, giving in a vacuum, guided by emotion alone can only get you so far. To make a bigger impact, you also need to shift your giving from sympathetic to strategic. This means doing some work. Not many of us do this—65 percent of all gifts have no research behind them, according to a 2010 Hope Consulting survey. Yet shouldn’t every dollar you give deliver the greatest benefit possible to the people you want to help? It’s hard to have this happen without conducting some research.
So instead of responding to a late night television ad that pulls on your heart strings (and TV marketers and phone solicitation companies sometimes take a huge percentage of every dollar given), tap into the expertise of the hundreds of online nonprofits and funding intermediaries out there. Many do the research, assessment, and measurement for you and connect you to giving opportunities. Giving through trusted intermediaries means that, instead of giving to invisible recipients, you can see how your generosity is used to help an impoverished widow in India start a small business or to buy a computer for a low-income student in Detroit.
Collaborative giving is another way to maximize bang for philanthropic buck. Instead of giving only at your place of worship and being ‘done with your giving’ for the year, create a giving circle with family, friends, or members of your religious community, and learn together about an issue of shared interest. You can pool funds–moving from isolated to collaborative–and make joint giving decisions, helping your money go further than it would have if you made a gift alone.
It’s true that the idea of giving when government, corporate, and personal budgets are being slashed might seem counter-intuitive. But in times like these, giving is critical. If charitable funding shrinks, the organizations providing critical services to the unemployed, our children, and our community members may be forced to choose between scaling back their services or reducing their staff—at a time when we need those essential services and dedicated nonprofit employees more than ever. So in the midst of economic turmoil, when everything seems out of control, let’s focus on what we can control—how we express our generosity. We don’t have to give more—just in a way that matters more.