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How to make the most of your charitable donation

No matter where you choose to give, here’s how to ensure your money does the most good

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We’re about to begin the giving season — which means that many people have started to ask themselves how to get the most out of their end-of-year charitable giving. Where should you donate this year? How can you ensure that your money is put to a good cause?

There are a lot of different ways to share your wealth with others — and some of them are more effective than others. We asked Kevin Scally, Chief Relationship Officer at Charity Navigator, to help us navigate some of the various options around charitable giving.

Is it better to give to a single charity, or to spread your wealth among multiple organizations? Should you think locally or globally? How can you quickly identify which charities and nonprofits are doing the best work?

Here’s what you need to know before you make your next donation to charity.

In this article:

Choose a cause

For many people, the decision to make a charitable donation begins not with a specific public charity or private foundation, but with a commitment to a cause.

“Causes find people,” Scally told us, “but they don’t always know the best organizations working in those cause areas.”

If you’re interested in supporting racial justice, LGBTQ communities or Indigenous-owned small businesses, for example, you might not know where to begin — and the uncertainty might prevent you from making the kind of charitable gift that could make a real difference. That’s where organizations like Charity Navigator come in.

“We help cut through the noise and match you with efficient, effective organizations,” Scally explained. “We rate 200,000 charities on a four-star rating system. We do this at no cost to the charities we rate and at no cost to the individuals using our resource.”

If you aren’t sure what causes you’re most interested in supporting, Charity Navigator can direct you towards causes and organizations that need immediate support. Making contributions towards critical issues can help you get started with charitable giving. Natural disaster recovery, for example, is a low-barrier, high-impact way to put your money where it can do some good.

Pick one or two charitable organizations

Once you’ve identified a cause you’d like to support, you’ll want to begin researching the organizations doing the best work within that cause area. With that in mind, we asked Scally if it was better to spread your money among multiple charitable organizations, or to focus your giving towards one or two charities or nonprofits.

“We typically recommend that people support a select few organizations,” Scally advised.

This may sound calculating (in more ways than one), but think about it from a financial perspective. If you have $100 to give this holiday season, it’s better to give $50 to two organizations than $10 to ten different charities. “With more significant funding, the charities that you support can actually do more good,” Scally explained. “You’ll see more impact.”

Limiting your charitable donations to one or two organizations can also make it easier for you when it comes time to report your charitable donations on your taxes for any relevant tax deductions. “Making bigger donations to a smaller number of organizations is good for them and good for you,” says Scally. “It’s also easier to keep track of, tax-wise.”

We also asked Scally if it was better to give to larger organizations with a national or global mission, or whether people should focus on local organizations working within a specific community. As it turns out, making a donation to a larger organization could end up benefiting your smaller community organization as well — especially if you choose a national charity that has partnered with a local one.

“What many people don’t realize,” Scally told us, “is that large national organizations often partner with smaller organizations.”

If you’re interested in reducing hunger in your community, for example, a major non-profit like Feeding America may have already established a relationship with the local food banks in your area — and your charitable dollars could be used more efficiently if you donate directly to the larger organization.

Make a budget

Once you’ve decided which causes you’d like to support and which organizations are doing the best work in these cause areas, it’s time to make your budget. Setting aside a certain amount of money for charitable giving not only helps you plan ahead, but also makes your gift more meaningful.

“For charitable giving, be very intentional,” Scally advises. ”Tell yourself that this is the amount of money that you are going to give to charity this year.”

Making this kind of mindful commitment is likely to increase not only your interest in charitable giving, but also the amount you can afford to give. “People often realize that they can give more than they originally anticipated,” says Scally, “especially after they identify causes that are important to them.”

As you’re making your budget (potentially with a financial advisor), you may ask yourself whether it’s better to give your money towards an organization that is already receiving a lot of funding, or to put your money towards an organization that may need a little extra help. We asked Scally how to handle this dilemma, and his answer was simple.

“It’s best to support organizations that are addressing causes with the greatest need,” Scally told us. “This may mean supporting an organization that is already receiving a lot of funding. They may be receiving a large number of donations, but that money is going towards an immense need.”

Scally has first-hand experience with this kind of organization. He previously worked for Smile Train, a well-known and well-funded charity that provides free cleft surgery to children around the world. “Even though Smile Train is a well-supported organization, they still need contributions,” Scally explained. “There’s so much more they could be doing if they were able to expand.”

“Making bigger donations to a smaller number of organizations is good for them and good for you.”

—Kevin Scally, Chief Relationship Officer at Charity Navigator

Give throughout the year

We’ve got one more piece of advice that can help you make the most of your charitable donation — and you might have heard it before. By committing to a monthly charitable contribution instead of a single contribution at the end of the calendar year, the charities you support can use your recurring donation as part of their long-term budget planning — and so can you.

“A monthly contribution is a great way to set and manage your budget,” Scally explains. “Pick an organization and give $25 a month. It turns out to be a considerable amount over an entire year.” (This can also increase any potential income tax deductions or other tax advantages.)

You don’t have to wait until the new year to get started, either. If you want to make the most out of your charitable donation in 2022, make your end-of-year contribution the beginning of a mindful, committed series of monthly donations.

By thinking carefully about which causes you want to support, which organizations are doing the best work and how much you can afford to give, you’ll be able to maximize your impact and feel good about your contributions at the same time.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

Read more by Nicole Dieker

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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