In the United States, Thanksgiving is over. That means after one day of reminding ourselves that even though we didn’t vote the way our family did, there is a lot to be thankful for. We have water to drink, access to healthcare, basic human rights. We take joy in the simple tradition of a shared meal.
And then Black Friday happens. Consumerism, materialism and the need to keep up with whoever, trumps all sense of common decency. We try to spend less money buying the items that will assure our loved ones that we love them most next month. If you have read my other blogs, you know my thoughts on shopping because of the toll on human life and rights. This feeling that others should not suffer so that I may demonstrate my love for a family member is strong at the holidays. In the past I have given homemade presents, items bought at charity/thrift stores or, given that I am often absent at the holidays, I have given nothing or on the occasions that I am there, I feel my presence should suffice.
Today, I offer an alternative: charitable gifts.
I have spent a fair amount of time working in the not-for-profit sector, including as a fundraiser. I have volunteered, including over four years in total, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I have been a regular donor of money; dropped lots of stuff off at thrift stores and charity shops; and I have volunteered my time serving meals, stocking shelves, consulting, and more.
I get frustrated when people don’t want to give and cite these reasons for which I will offer rebuttals:
- “I don’t have any extra money”
When I worked at the British Red Cross (BRC), I worked with those known indelicately as “Major Donors.” We designated a major donor as one who gave a certain amount a year, and most charities have a similar qualification, but the amount may vary, but it is usually at least $5,000/year. We had donors who gave over $100,000 equivalent a year. However, what was interesting was that of all the revenue of the BRC (trusts, government, major donors, corporations, etc.) the greatest single source of revenue, accounting for nearly 50% of the total income, was what were called “Individual donors”. These were people that gave a small amount on a monthly basis via direct debit. These were small amounts a few pounds a month. Just about anyone can afford $5/month, but may not give it because it seems insignificant, however, that added to everyone else who gives $5 can add up to a lot! In the US, over 70% of all charitable gifts come not from corporations, but from people. Warren Buffett challenged billionaires to give half their wealth away, and this inspired some non-billionaires to do the same. I once read a story about a family who was just a regular American family who sold their home and down-sized their life to do the same. That is amazing and beautiful, but simply giving away 5% of your income can have an impact. It is interesting that the percentage Americans give is on an inverse bell curve in relation to their income. Those with the most and the least money, give the greatest percentage. Those in the middle give less, which is not really what one would expect. It means those who are the least well off, are giving more of a percentage of their income away than the middle class. Can you afford one less coffee out per week? Can you buy one less item of clothing this month? Can you make a small sacrifice, so that you can give 3-5% of your monthly income away? Take a look at your monthly take home pay, and commit to giving a percentage of it away each month. Many charities offer a direct debit, so you don’t even have to think about it.
- “How can I trust that the money I am giving is going towards the work I care about?”
That is an excellent question to which you have the right to an answer. Luckily, there are a number of sources for researching charities. You can get an overall score from an unbiased third party, you can read rankings, you can search by cause, by efficiency, etc. You can find the charity that has ethics that you agree with and can support knowing that your money is going to do the life changing and life saving work the charity claims. Here are some excellent sources:
The Life You Can Save
- “Why does so much of what I give go to overhead? I don’t want to pay someone’s salary.”
As a person who has worked for nonprofits, I find this a bit frustrating. If we can agree that the vast majority of charities do good work, and that the sources above can point you in the direction of an ethical charity, why is there still concern about income? Many, if not all, mid-level management jobs and up in the not-for-profit sector require a master’s degree. Nearly all jobs require a college degree. Those cost money. The employees at nonprofits have families or just themselves that they need to support. Getting a job in nonprofit industry is essentially the same as in the for-profit industry. Most employees are not independently wealthy and doing this work on a volunteer basis. In some cases, nonprofit employees make less than their for-profit counterparts. When you give to a charity, you may be supporting salaries, or ink cartridges, or electricity for the office, or any number of costs. But without those costs being covered, the charity would be unable to deliver quality services to the population it serves. Some are better than others in their efficiency, and those sources above can help. Back in the old days, charities tended to be well intentioned, poorly run money pits, but that changed. Nowadays, they are run like businesses with strict accountability measures. Be glad that there are people who are willing to do this work, and help them do it in offices with the lights and heat on.
- “Fine, but why are some of the CEO salaries so high?”
This follows along the last point. Many will agree that people should be paid SOMETHING to do this work, but when the top brass at a charity makes more than they do, it is hard to reconcile. Continuing on the logic above, let’s look at a large not-for-profit: The American Red Cross. Their CEO, Gail McGovern makes $500,000 a year. How do I know this? It is published and publicly available. She is in charge of net assets totalling over $1.5 billion dollars. With her resume, she could take a big money job. Oh wait, she did, from Wikipedia: “She joined Fidelity Investments in September 1998 as president of distribution and services. Her department served 4 million customers with $500 billion in assets. She was recognized by Fortune magazine in 2000 and 2001 as one of the top 50 most powerful women in corporate America.”What would her salary at a bank look like? You would have to add a zero and double her paltry $500,000 and then some. She is giving her time by taking a HUGE pay-cut, and by giving her skills and expertise to a nonprofit. From the driver to the receptionist to the program managers to the executives, the employees at nonprofits must be good at their jobs, and that means hiring the best people for the job and that mean offering them something in return for their work. Warm fuzzy feelings only go so far. No one decided to go into nonprofit to get rich, but can we agree they shouldn’t be made poor?
- “I prefer to give time than money.”
Time is often an even more precious gift. Many organizations rely on that time. So, go give your time. I bet you end up giving money too once you see what it can do.
- “I’d rather give goods.”
I am not going to go terribly into detail here, but let me just pose a couple of things to you. Situation 1: Say for example, an earthquake happened in Nepal. People are without shelter. They need, among other things, blankets. So you want to send the old blankets from your hall closet. Well, they need to get there. Are you also going to pay to have them shipped? Have they been cleaned? Is it a good idea to bring possibly contaminated items into an already devastated environment? Are they of the appropriate thickness? Will they be warm enough without being unnecessarily too warm? Who is going to decide who gets your Care Bears blanket and who gets an old REI sleeping bag someone else donated? Instead, what relief organizations do is they prefer to buy items from the local economy if possible to support them. They buy new items that are clean and free of germs. They buy items appropriate for the weather and environment. They save money on shipping and customs by not sending items around the world. Your blanket may end up costing money and helping no one. If you give $50, you may have purchased 10 blankets. Situation 2: You give your clothes to the local thrift store. I am in favor of this. However, if it is junk, that they can’t sell, they have to get rid of it. Many times, old clothing is sent overseas and sold in depressed economies. This reduces the market for items made and sold by local people and can devastate an economy. Use your old t-shirts and make a quilt instead. Donate items the shop can actually use, which you can find out by asking.
Okay, so now that I have countered your arguments and hopefully alleviated your concerns, you can start to think of how much to give and to whom. First decide how much you can afford. The year is coming to a close, and this is your last chance at tax deductible donations. You have gifts to give and you know how much money you made and perhaps how much you will make, so what percentage of that can you give? 1%? 3%? 5%? More?
Why don’t you consider giving part or all of that as gifts from other people? Back to my original point: rather than buying stuff, why don’t you give a little love this holiday season?
My sister and I are thinking of Sponsoring a Child for our nephews and niece. They are very well off, need nothing, want for very little and will live a life shielded from the fact that other children don’t have what they do. I don’t want to traumatize them; I just want them to develop sensitivity for others. We can do this each year, and they can develop a low-tech relationship with a young girl or boy from a far off place and learn about their life and culture. That is a gift far greater than any toy or game I could buy.
In the aftermath of this divisive election season, many of us are scared for the future of many Americans. You don’t need to send you money overseas, you can help those in need closer to home. John Oliver had some suggestions. (watch from 19:35)
If you are concerned about access to healthcare, water, education, etc. around the world, give to organizations that work in those areas.
I am not going to endorse any particular charities; there are many that are worthy!
I will offer a bit of caution when it comes to giving to religious institutions, which is where 33% of donations went to in 2015. While they may do fantastic work, they are not held to the same standards as a typical non-profit. They are exempt from certain filing measures, and due to our separation of church and state, they do not even have to be a registered charity. I would suggest you give to a faith-based charity rather than your own place of worship for your larger donations other than your weekly contribution to the collection plate, which ostensibly is to maintain the church.
The sources I cited above will help you decide where to send your money based on the cause that is close to you, and you can give it in honor of a relative, and then give the thank you letter, information about the charity and their work, the gift you got with your donation, etc. to your family member. At the very least, it will give them pause. Ask yourself: “Does my relative NEED this item? What good will it serve? Don’t we all deserve to be happy humans? Can you sacrifice a little, which will help someone else a lot? Everyone wins, and no one has to face the malls or fake a smile when they open pink fuzzy slippers instead of the book they had really wanted.
This is also published on HuffPost.