My family isn’t unlike yours, I bet: Our budget is always tight, especially during the holidays, when we face extra expenses like Christmas presents, travel and OH MY GOSH CANDY CANE JOE-JOES. (Don’t deny it; you stock up, too.) But that doesn’t mean we scrimp on our holiday charitable giving.
Generosity and a commitment to helping others are central family values in this house. For us, that means giving to nonprofits throughout the year, but we always increase our donations during the holidays. (The giving spirit is in the air—or wait, maybe that’s pumpkin spice and evergreen scent!)
When it comes to our holiday charitable giving this year, I want to get the most bang for my buck. I’m betting you do, too. So no matter if your budget is super tight or as expansive as Bill and Melinda Gates’, here’s how to make the biggest change with your money.
Make big change on a budget
- Ask your employer to match your donation. Many companies, especially larger ones, match donations—and even give a certain amount of money for every hour you volunteer. Yet $6 to 10 billion dollars of matchable donations aren’t claimed every year, according to Double the Donation. Ask someone in HR about your employer’s matching policy or do a quick search of companies that match employee donations here.
- Donate on #GivingTuesday—then talk about it. #GivingTuesday—this year November 29—emerged five years ago as a social-media driven initiative to kick of the philanthropic giving season; it also was a response to the shop-happy craziness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Although you won’t stretch your charitable giving dollars by posting with the hashtag #GivingTuesday or posting an #UNselfie, you may just influence someone else in your social circles to donate—and that’s a lot like doubling your impact.
(Skeptical? Well, last year more than 700,000 people donated a total of more than $116 million dollars on Giving Tuesday.)
- Research your chosen nonprofit. Making sure a nonprofit you support is responsible and efficient with its funds gives you peace of mind that your donation is making an impact—not padding the executive director’s salary. Reviewing organizations on Charity Navigator (which uses a handy four-star rating system and a breakdown of what portion of the budget goes where) will stretch your holiday charitable giving dollars.
- Don’t donate through a telemarketer campaign. If you’re like me, you don’t answer most unknown numbers, but if you do you might end up talking to someone fund-raising for a charity via the phone. I recently learned, though, that these tend to be run by for-profit companies that take a huge slice of your donation. These services are also expensive, so nonprofits using them spend a ton of money on fund-raising instead of directing the max to their programs budget.
So if you think, hey, I want to support that organization, go to their web site and donate directly through them—not through a fund-raising phone call.
- Join (or start) a giving circle. Money is tight, and it may feel like the $25 you have to give won’t go far. But when you pool that donation with other friends’ generosity, you can make a bigger impact. All you have to do is get a handful of friends together—or piggyback on a group that’s already meeting, like book club, moms’ group or an alumni group—and decide on an organization or cause you want to support. (Here’s a breakdown of the steps to forming a giving circle.)
If that sounds like too much work, you can always join an existing giving circle to make your holiday charitable giving more impactful.
- Consider cost-effectiveness. The nonprofit Raising for Effective Giving puts it this way: Thinking about the return on your donation—its cost-effectiveness—can help us leverage fewer dollars into bigger change. It uses the example of funding education in the developing world: Deworming children is 28 times more effective in increasing their likelihood to stay in school than providing uniforms, according to their analysis.
Raising for Effective Giving also makes the case that focusing your dollars abroad tends to make a bigger difference. People get by on much less in developing countries (1 billion people worldwide survive on $1.25 or less per day) so $1—or $100—can alter their life more drastically than someone who lives in a developed country.
- Give every month. Donating a big chunk of money at the end of the year can be hard on your budget, especially when you’re absorbing the costs of holiday presents and travel. Instead, work regular donations into your budget—say, $10 every month for a few charities. You can have the amount deducted from your checking account (or paycheck) automatically, and the steady trickle of dependable donations helps nonprofits fund programs year-round.
- Lend micro-loans. When you loan a small amount of money to someone who can’t get a commercial loan, you can empower someone to start a business, continue education or invest in clean energy. Then when that person pays you back, you can reinvest that money in someone else’s business plan. (That really is the gift that keeps on giving!)
Kiva is a nonprofit that facilitates these micro-loans (and it gets Charity Navigator’s highest rating). The organization boasts a 97% rate of repayment, which means there’s a very good chance the borrower will be able to pay back the loan. You can search projects by category, geography or—more bang for your buck—donation matching.
- Give money, not stuff. Nonprofits can acquire goods like blankets, pet food or green beans more cheaply than you and I can by hitting up the store. One estimate says that food banks can get food 20 times more cheaply than you and I. What’s more, it takes volunteers’ time to sort through donations and people don’t always donate items that are actually needed; giving cash allows nonprofits to put money where the biggest need is.
Now, there are benefits to giving in-kind gifts like canned tuna or warm hats. If you’re involving your kids in this year’s holiday charitable giving, it’s a lot easier for them to understand something concrete like giving a box of mac n cheese than something abstract like a check (or, more likely, an online donation). I’m a big fan of giving with my kids—like our efforts to fill a stocking for the homeless, make a care package for a homeless child and buy Christmas presents for a child whose parent is in prison. I’m aware it isn’t the most efficient use of my money, but it cultivates a spirit of giving in my family, and that makes it worth it.
- Plan ahead. When you give thoughtfully, you can do your research, find an organization that matches your values, ensure they’re effective and give an appropriate amount without breaking your budget. That’s a lot more likely to stretch your holiday charitable giving dollars than donating just because an earnest volunteer stopped you on the street or showed up on your doorstep.
As Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, told Money, “Treat it like an investment decision rather than an impulse buy.” After all, it’s your money, and you want to make sure you spend it wisely—and that it makes the biggest change possible.
How do you make the most of your holiday charitable giving? What causes are closest to your heart?