How to Give Wisely to a Charity

By Mary Hunt

December 14, 2015 5 min read

It's that time of year again — everyone wants your money. Brace yourself for more dinnertime phone calls and mailbox solicitations.

Those kinds of things used to bother me. So did the collection plate at church. I felt guilty because no matter how much money we made, there was never enough to give away. And with all the debt my family had, how could I be expected to help others?

Then our financial house of cards came crashing down. It was ugly. Losing our business and our income, and getting notice that our home was scheduled to go into foreclosure were huge wakeup calls. At the darkest moment, I made a promise: If I ever see another dollar, I'm going to give some of it away. First. Then I will do the best I can with the rest. And I meant it.

I did see another dollar — in fact, many dollars — in the following years. "Give and save first, then spend" became my money management philosophy.

From time to time a financial planner will argue that it was foolish to contribute to charity, my church and others while paying exorbitant interest rates on credit card debt. I disagree. Yes, we probably could have paid down the debt faster — it took 13 years to pay off more than $100,000 in unsecured debt. But I know myself. Giving gave me a grateful heart and the stamina I needed to keep going until my last debt was paid.

If you don't have money to give because you've decided to devote all of your spare cash to getting out of debt, I hear you. But don't let that stop you from giving something. Give your time as a volunteer to help out in your community. Use your talents to help a school, church or other organization that would otherwise have to pay for that work. Share your great supermarket bargains with a food pantry.

And if you do want to donate money this season, here's what you need to know.

MAKE SURE CHARITY IS REPUTABLE. The time to do your homework is before you write that check, so put down the pen and turn on your computer. Where to look? Guidestar.org, CharityNavigator.org and the Better Business Bureau's Give.org. Online nonprofit databases like these offer information for thousands of charities. Use each site's search engine to find financial facts, program details, complaints, state lawsuits and more.

KNOW WHERE YOUR MONEY GOES. Not every cent you send goes to help hungry kids or disaster victims. Donations are typically siphoned into three areas: administrative costs, fundraising expenses and the actual cause. A good rule of thumb: 75 percent or more of contributions should go to the cause; 25 percent or less to administrative and fundraising costs, according to CharityWatch.org, a watchdog group that rates charities' use of donations.

BE CAREFUL ABOUT TEXTING. Texting is the latest — and in many ways easiest — way to give. With just a few taps, you can send money to a cause hassle-free, but that ease is the very thing you have to be careful about. It's tempting to act on impulse, which might set you up to give to a bogus charity. Another pitfall: Sending a text could lead to a slew of future messages from the charity.

NEVER DONATE BY PHONE. With the holidays also come scam artists who try to solicit donations over the phone. There's often an uptick in phony charities following natural disasters too, cautions the Federal Trade Commission. If you get one of these calls, never give out your credit-card number or any other personal information. Ask for the caller's phone number and address, then do your own research to see if the organization is on the up-and-up.

Giving is good for us. It's the best way to pull the drain plug on greed. Giving away some of what we have to others who have even less makes a statement that while we might not have it all, we do have enough. That's good for the soul.

Would you like more information? Log on to EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: BK

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