Maximizing your giving: Who you should give to, what you should give, and why
Part One - Volunteering is the best place to start
There are many nonprofit organizations needing donations to fund their services to help people. We cannot give to all of them. How do we choose which ones will use our donations to help the people we are most concerned about? How do we know which organizations are spending our gifts wisely? Which nonprofit is going to stretch our donations the furthest to help the most people?
I have worked in multiple nonprofit organizations and taken several classes on fundraising. After seeing the insiders’ point of view on spending and collecting donations, I have a few pointers for you…
First of all, realize that although there have been media scandals about misspent dollars, most organizations and people who work in them are sincere about helping the people they serve. These people generally love what they do and are passionate about being able to continue to do it. The staff is usually working for considerably less than they could make in the for-profit world and Board of Directors is primarily volunteers. So, the dedication and commitment of the people who are involved in nonprofit organizations is not usually a problem. But passion and dedication are not enough. Do not give just because someone delivers a sincere talk about their organization, or because you received a brochure in the mail showing needy people. Do your homework first! You have worked hard to get your money and you need to make sure every cent of it gets spent well.
The place to start is within you! Do some soul searching to find out what you are passionate about. Are you most concerned about hungry families in your town, areas of the world with the greatest medical needs, or do you have a passion for the arts? Ask yourself, “If I could change one thing in this world, what would it be?” There is no right or wrong answer. There are so many causes, needs, and organizations that you will not have to look far to find a good match for you. When you discover and fund what you care about, you will give more strategically and enthusiastically. It won’t seem like a sacrifice. Soon your excitement will rub off on people around you because you will just naturally talk about what you love!
After you have discovered your passion, you need to look for organizations that match your passion. Every nonprofit organization has a mission statement, which is usually displayed in as many places as they can. This mission statement defines why they do what they do – the one thing in this world the organization hopes to change. So, your goal is to find several organizations with mission statements that line up with your passion. This is easily accomplished with a search on-line using keywords. Remember to include the name of your town or county if you are looking for local organizations. Check each websites homepage, which will almost certainly contain the mission statement. You can also get organizational newsletters and fundraising brochures by calling their offices or from local brochure stands at the Chamber of Commerce and community service offices. Now you are ready to fund the cause you love and have several organizations which serve that need to choose from. Pick your top 2 or 3 and start research into the company.
The #1 way to research an organization is to spend time serving that organization as a volunteer.
Yes, before you give them one dime, if possible, volunteer. Why do I say that? Because organizations have been trained to look good on paper and to give sincere presentations to potential donors. There are a myriad of classes and seminars on how to find new donors, get the donors they have to give more, give the most effective presentations, and even recruit the donors’ heirs. There are multiple software programs available to “manage” donor bases. These are all good for the organization because it helps them to run more efficiently, so the company should use them in this tight economy. But from a donor’s perspective – we want to see programs that really work to change people’s lives. The best way to see that is first hand as a volunteer.
Every organization has different needs and policies for volunteers. Don’t wait for them to ask you personally. E-mail or call their offices to find out what opportunities are available and what you need to do to get involved. There may be multiple hoops you have to jump through – do not be offended by them. These policies are put in place to protect you as a volunteer, the rights and privacy of the clients, and the staff. Some policies are even mandated by law, depending on the service. Work through the process and get to know the staff along the way. Ask questions, pay attention to how you are treated, and encourage overworked staff. In the past some of my favorite volunteers made my day simply by saying, “Thanks for giving me the chance to help someone else today.”
After you have volunteered, you need to look at the companies’ efficiency and effectiveness.
Efficiency means that the organization uses its resources well. As a volunteer you could notice signs of efficiency if the company has a specific, well defined, task for you to do as soon as your arrive. They may be wasting the resource of your time if you stand around for an hour waiting to be told what they need you to do, or do not have all the materials ready for you to accomplish your task. There is a good chance that if an organization does not use volunteers wisely, they are not using other resources (your money) as well as they should. Effectiveness means the organization is seeing changes in the world because they are living up to their mission statement. Volunteers should see evidence of people being helped first hand. Did the food bank give clients candy or milk? How many people actually attended the local arts festival and did artists sell work? Were children sent to school, given a hot lunch and clean drinking water or was this a photo op for a celebrity? The criteria will vary with each organizations mission, but as a volunteer you will be in a great position to judge for yourself if the company is doing the work you want to fund.
Remember that volunteering is giving! Your time is valuable both to you and to the organization you serve. Each hour you volunteer saves the company wages of staff and increases the amount of community service they can accomplish. For more information about volunteering I recommend the book: Make a Difference: America's Guide to Volunteering and Community Service