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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Paper Doll Says: Contribute With An Open Heart, Not A Cluttered Desktop

By popular request, Paper Doll is revisiting (and updating) a favorite topic: dealing with the clutter of incoming charitable giving requests.

Have you noticed that in the weeks since Thanksgiving, your mailbox is as fully and robustly overstuffed as you were in the late-night hours preceding Black Friday? Your postal carrier is struggling and your daily mail piles are exhibiting a growth spurt.

It's not just ads and coupons, inveigling you to spend your precious little green bits of paper, and unless you're the most popular kid in class, it's not all holiday greetings. A huge contribution to all that Mail Call Clutter comes from requests for charitable giving!

It's easy to become overwhelmed. Certainly, you want to help support causes about which you're concerned (children, healthcare, the environment, animals, education, poverty...and the list goes on), but you may be troubled by some challenging obstacles to philanthropy:

Limited Funds -- No one person (not even Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Oprah), possesses the funds to solve all of the world's troubles. Even the folks on Forbes Magazine's 2011 list of the 400 Richest Americans can't do it all. Do you wonder if your contribution, even if it's more than you can comfortably provide, has the power to make a difference?

Competing Interests -- Weighing charitable giving options against one another can paralyze you into doing nothing, letting the piles of requests (the letters and the envelopes and the "gifts" of greeting cards and address labels) creep across the kitchen table and overtake your office desk.

Just as you couldn't take as much as you wanted from the Thanksgiving buffet because your elastic waistband might snap, your finances are finite and the number of charitable giving options, even just the non-profits actively seeking your help, are practically infinite. Responding to each request is no more suitable than ignoring them all but still letting the papers clutter your surroundings. The guilt of non-responsiveness will clutter your heart and mind.

Confusion Over Repeated Requests -- Non-profits aren't trying to grab your money dishonorably (as magazine subscription services do); nonetheless, they serve up an onslaught of requests, leaving you confused as to whether you've actually donated or not. If you give to Charity A in December, not only will you receive repeated requests over the ensuing months for "Special Giving Opportunities" to Charity A, but in many cases, you will receive requests from similarly-themed Charities B, C, D to double-Z because many non-profits earn revenue by selling their lists.

Bah. Humbug.

So, how can you resolve these frustrations?

First, give up the guilt. Receiving address labels doesn't obligate you to make a donation any more than receiving a holiday card from a stranger obligates you to send him one. Pleading advertising copy isn't a free ticket on the Guilt Trip Express. Use your brain so you can give from the heart.

Next, instead of choosing between the weight of guilt or the fear of exceeding your holiday or monthly budgets, remember that there are alternatives to feeling pressured into writing a check to every cause that owns a bulk mail stamp. And none involve getting a sub-prime loan, robbing street-corner Santas or letting charitable clutter creep through your home. Instead:

1) Plan your charitable giving budget. The only way to give with your heart, without resentment, is to budget your donations as you would budget for all other expenditures.

It may shock those of you conditioned by "This offer is available for a limited time only. Operators are standing by!" but non-profits are always in need of money. You may get dozens of requests for donations in December, but your contributions will be no less valuable, life-saving or appreciated if sent three or six months down the line. Pace yourself.

Create and label a manila folder to collect all of the requests you receive for holiday donations, and during a quiet moment on New Year's Day or after, sip some hot cocoa and review them. Make a note on your calendar and treat this as if it were a formal appointment with the director of each of the non-profit organizations.

Select the charities that mean the most to you. Ask yourself, "If I could donate to only one charity, which would give me the greatest joy to help? Which would make me feel the most satisfied in my choice?"

There's no wrong answer. While one person might donate to help political prisoners in an impoverished nation, another might choose to support an animal shelter two blocks away. Medical research to find a cure for a disease that afflicts millions is no more or less "right" than giving to one neighborhood family whose home burned down in a fire. The weight of the whole world is not on your shoulders. Give with confidence that while you handle your share, millions of other similarly good-hearted people are doing the same.

Remember: you can't give to everyone, but you can feel good about everyone (and everything) to whom you choose to give.

As you sort through the requests, determine:

How much can you comfortably afford to give each month? Recall other pledged obligations, like to your house of worship, alma mater or public broadcasting stations.

How often do you want to donate?

How many charities will you select?

Do you want to give to 12 charities, and assign one to each month of the year (or perhaps four, with one per quarter)? Tuck the envelopes away in your tickler file or bill-paying center.

Keep the spirit of giving alive throughout the year without being overwhelmed or over budget.

Prefer to give to a few particular charities all year long? Set up a recurring donation on the same day of the month through your online bill-paying system. (You could schedule payments via credit card, but that costs non-profits extra merchant account fees.)

2) Budget cash for ad hoc giving, such as when you encounter a bell-ringer or want to purchase a meal for a homeless person.

Set aside $5 or $10 in singles in a separate section of your wallet so you can make unplanned donations without breaking your budget. After all, it's hard to give with an open heart if you're feeling resentful about a pinch in your pocketbook.

3) Partner with others to achieve a charitable giving goal. For example, propose that you and your networking colleagues or your Zumba buddies donate the monetary equivalent of one networking lunch or one post-class smoothie toward a specific charitable goal.

To keep the spirit going all year, create a charitable giving club the same way you'd start an investment club. Instead of collecting articles about stocks and mutual funds, collect the brochures and request letters from non-profits and bring them to your group meetings. (You'll be less inclined to let a charitable request languish atop your microwave if you know a group member feels passionately about that cause.)

4) Educate yourself about charities. Learn about the charities to which you are considering giving financial support. Find out what percentage of donations will be used for funding programs, research, etc., and what percentage goes towards advertising, administration, etc.

The Better Business Bureau's web site for charities offers Wise Giving Reports, explains charity accountability standards and provides background information on all the non-profits in the accredited charity directory.
CharityNavigator's newly expanded 2.0 ratings system evaluates the financial health of thousands of America's largest charities. Browse by charity name or category, and check out the blog, articles and charity ratings.

The American Institute of Philanthropy operates CharityWatch.org. Review the A-Z (well, A-Y, from the AARP Foundation to the Youth Development Fund) listings of hundreds of charities to learn more about their operations.
GuideStar.org lets you verify a charity's legitimacy, learn whether your prospective contribution will be tax deductible, view a non-profit's IRS Form 990, or find out more about its programs, mission statement and financial activities as rated by volunteers, donors and clients.

5) Give donations that keep on giving.

Consider gifts that will live on, long after you've made your donation.

Microlending organizations like Kiva allow people to lend small amounts of money, via the internet, to micro-financing institutions in developing countries. Your money partners with other donations to meet a recipient's financial needs for starting a small business abroad. Select by business type, read the profiles and pick the recipients of your loan/donation. When that loan is repaid, your money goes back into a kitty to help others. Give a Kiva gift certificate and combine gift giving and charitable giving.

Heifer International lets you donate a flock of ducks, a trio of bunnies or a share of a water buffalo to help families and communities around the world become self-reliant. Again, a gift certificate lets you combine two types of giving, heaping the gleeful honor of "ownership" on your recipients near and far.

"Give" your knitting sister a Knitter's Gift Basket (or a 10% share), and a farming family will get a llama, an alpaca, a sheep and an angora rabbit.

GlobalGiving connects donors with over 1000 charitable projects searchable by region, campaign or beneficiary. For example, Creating Hope International and the Afghan Institute for Learning combine to provide cloth, tools and a tailoring course so Afghan women can become self-sufficient.

Some people have everything, need nothing, and want only world peace and tranquility. But even the most high-minded of us like unwrapping something shiny. Revel in special opportunities to provide gifts that, while not tangible for the giftee except in the form of a certificate, provide ineffable meaning for them and something essential and tangible to the third-party recipients -- the hungry, the impoverished, the innocent, and the needy.

Finally, no matter how you give, make a notation on the request letter to show how much you donated, on what date, using what method (check, credit card, etc.). File the letter in the tax prep section of your family files until you receive an official confirmation of your donation.

Of course, you need not always give money. Donating gently-used possessions, time and service to non-profits can be even more valuable than the amount of money you could afford to donate.

Keep the spirit of giving...just let go of the piles of requests.

posted on: 12/20/2011 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Janet Barclay on 12/21/2011 6:11:59 AM:

Julie, thank you so much for this article. This year I decided to make a donation to my client's favorite charity in lieu of a gift, and as I filled out the form, I realized that here is one more organization who will be "hitting me up" in the future. As different life events happen, I find myself inclined to support a wider range of causes, but as you say, my funds are limited so I need to decide how much to donate and to whom. Your tips will be very helpful as I plan my 2012 budget.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 12/21/2011 2:22:39 PM:

Thanks, Janet. Just as our eyes can be bigger than our stomachs, our hearts can be bigger than our pocketbooks. Having a system let's us "blame" the system so it's easier to demur from spending the egg and milk money on every charity that asks.

by Gillian Villeneuve on 12/21/2011 7:44:04 PM:

I am in the middle of 'doing the charities', all online. I have also put on my calendar to do 2 each month all year, so as to avoid being in a rush in Dec. To get a 2011 tax receipt, it must be done by the end of the year. Now if I can just keep to my schedule.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 12/21/2011 9:39:41 PM:

Gillian, good for you for getting your philanthropy for 2012 all lined up. Good luck keeping to your schedule -- let us know how it goes! Happy holidays!

by Vicki Tutterow on 1/17/2012 12:01:45 PM:

Hi Julie, as a new organizer, I love how you've put everything I believe about charitable giving in one beautifully written blog post. It is a keeper, and not only that, a repeater! Well worth reminding all of us every year how to give lovingly, yet intentionally. Thanks!

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 1/17/2012 4:20:24 PM:

Awwww, Vicki, thank you for such kinds words!

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

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