Updated on 04.20.10

Dealing with Charitable Requests Throughout the Year

Trent Hamm

Each year, my wife and I give a certain portion of our income to charity. We usually select a few charities to help out at the start of the year and donate a significant amount to that small handful of charities. This helps us budget our charitable giving throughout the year.

But it’s not always that easy.

Our first attempt at dealing with charity was simply to give away our entire annual charity budget pretty quickly at the start of the year. That way, we would find it very easy to simply tell charity requesters that we’ve already given all of our money for the year.

But we ran into a few problems along the way.

What about unexpected events? Things like the Sumatra earthquake in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake in 2009 are simply massive human disasters where immediate donations are really vital to help people survive an unexpected disaster.

What about small charities with social ties? I have enough nieces and nephews and friends to know that there’s usually a regular deluge of fundraisers and other such minor giving situations throughout the year. I’m not going to hide from the girl down the street that plays with our kids almost every day when she stops by selling Girl Scout cookies. I’m going to stop by the bake sale held by the parks and recreation department to help keep youth sports free (or as low cost as possible).

We both wanted to give in both of these areas. We wanted to help out the community fundraisers throughout the year and to donate some money to big disasters, but we didn’t want that money to impact our financial state, either.

Our solution was a charity account.

Starting last year, we started putting a small amount each month into a “next year’s charity” account. So, right now, for example, we’re funding a “2011 charitable giving” account. We adjust that amount a bit based on our income, but once January 1 rolls around, that account is locked. The amount in that account is what we’re going to give to charity for the year.

We immediately donate about 40% of it to charities we know we wish to support so that we’re sure those charities are supported.

The rest of the money is doled out throughout the year at bake sales, emergency fundraisers, and countless other little things where charitable giving comes up.

At the end of last year, we still had a fair amount in the account, so we divided up the remainder and donated it between Christmas and the new year.

This leaves one final question: how do we deal with charitable requests we don’t wish to give to?

We’re honest and straightforward with them. Yes, it might be a cause that we would like to give money to, but a person simply cannot give money to every charity in the world. I particularly do not like giving to charities that make unsolicited phone calls – if a charity calls and interrupts time I’m spending with my kids, I’m not going to donate to that charity, for example. If I do believe in the cause, I’ll find another avenue to donate, one that doesn’t support such intrusion.

How do I know if a charity is legitimate? I usually don’t sweat it when it comes to local charities. I don’t demand paperwork at the bake sales, for example. With larger charities, I use Charity Navigator to ensure that the charity is legitimate and uses most of the donated money for the reasons stated.

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  1. Molly says:

    We deal with the small/local charity requests differently. If I want Girl Scout cookies (which of course I do, I love those tagalons), that money comes out of my fun budget for the month. If I’m getting a baked good with my husband, that’s our date for the week.

    But our full chunk of charity money we give in one big donation in the middle of the year – precisely when lots of kitten and puppy litters are born, the shelter needs money, and the donations are low. (Yes, we are animal lovers, and we have chosen the no-kill shelter near us for this large donation.)

  2. Vicky says:

    I donate time, rather than money.

    I work with a German Shepherd rescue and our local SPCA and my local dog club because I don’t have cash to give – but I’ve got time and skills.

    Just another option, if you don’t have a lot of extra money.

  3. MattJ says:

    I give a substantial percentage of my salary to an international relief organization (Mercy Corps). They help many of the people in the world who are truly the most in need, and respond quickly to disasters. I don’t give extra when there is a disaster in the news. My impression is that lags in response to disaster are not typically a result of ‘not enough money quick enough’, but are instead usually logistical bottlenecks or bureaucratic boondoggles that more money won’t fix.

    I give a somewhat smaller, though not trivial, percentage to local charities through the United Way.

    The sum of those two above are large enough that I feel no pangs of guilt for refusing when I’m asked to donate elsewhere.

    As far charities with ties to poeple I know socially, I volunteer (sit on the board, write/edit the newsletter, occasionally work in the community) for a local chapter of a nationwide nonprofit, and do so visibly for the people who know me. Many nonprofits of this type (mine is no exception) are more vanity projects for the middle class (or wealthy) than anything else. Don’t get me wrong – we do good work, and the portions of the community we serve appreciate it, but it’s more about trying to do something good with our hobby than a ‘pure’ charity that exists to serve the less fortunate. (For those who are wondering what I mean, consider a gun club that has a couple of annual charity fundraisers or something like Boy Scouts that is mostly about providing a service to people who are not necessarily that poor) No offense meant to any group like that, of course, (as I’ve said, my own group is one) and some have more significant levels of ‘giving back’. What I’m getting at is that if you’re a member of a group like that and serve (or ‘serve’ if you prefer) through them, it’s not that hard to avoid most of the stuff that your social contacts want you to get involved in, or at least, I haven’t found it to be so. “This nonprofit I work with requires quite a bit of my time (true!), so I don’t have time for your thing” and “This nonprofit I work with requires quite a bit of my money (also true, but keep in mind that it gets nowhere near my total charity budget, which is really no business of my social contacts) – I don’t have money for your thing”. Any social request that can’t be blocked with that sort of statement is usually something trivial enough that I don’t mind forking over the $10 for a couple of boxes of cookies or something.

  4. Jenny says:

    There are few benefits to being unemployed, but one is that the “forced donating” is gone and I can choose where I give to. There was enormous pressure to give to places I thought were a little corrupt and not my choice. I have a few animal protection places I derive much pleasure from helping now that I do not have to force donate.

  5. anna says:

    I cannot stress how important it is to ensure that the charity you are donating to is a good one. Very few people realize that the Salvation Army is a church and the money you put in those buckets at Christmas time go to the church first THAN to their charity. If you are okay with that than great but I would prefer to donate to my churches charity that has a 98% donation rate (only 2% of the money goes to running the charity) Find an organization you believe in and research it before donating any money. You don’t have to donate to everyone/thing that asks for money, giving money because you WANT to help and feel strongly about a cause will make you feel better about donating.

  6. Tamara says:

    I put a portion of my monthly budget to charity, and collect it in a jar. When things come up I can take money out of the jar to make a donation. anything that is left at the end of the year goes to one or two of my favourite charities.

  7. MattJ says:

    I concur with Anna. Trent mentions using Charity Navigator to check out any charity you might be interested in donating to. This is what they have to say about Salvation Army:

    We don’t evaluate The Salvation Army.

    Why not? Many religious organizations are exempt under Internal Revenue Code from filing the Form 990. As a result, we lack sufficient data to evaluate their financial health.

    Even without the lack of transparency, avoiding buckets and booths at stores is easy for me – I won’t give to a charity unless I get a receipt for tax purposes, and you don’t get a receipt from the guy with a bell and a bucket.

  8. KC says:

    I encourage people to donate locally. There are so many needy places in your own backyard and donating to them (time or money) benefits you greatly. I like to donate to my library. I’m also an avid user of my library. When I donate money for collections they have more money to buy materials that I might get to use, but that also help my population become more literate and educated. When I donate to local food banks I’m feeding people in my area and likely helping reduce crime in the area (what better motivator to turn an honest person into a crook than hunger or providing food for ones family?). So by giving to local food banks I’m helping my friends and neighbors and helping reduce crimes associated with hunger.

    I emotionally support international efforts like the American Red Cross and raising money for earthquake victims, etc. But those organizations get so much media attention and so much money. I’d rather help in my own backyard where they don’t have the resources to advertise and where the dollars do me as much good as they do the people who need them.

  9. Courtney says:

    “We immediately donate about 40% of it to charities we know we wish to support so that we’re sure those charities are supported.”

    If you know you are going to support a charity, I would encourage you to make a monthly “pledged” gift of a recurring amount instead of one lump sum. This helps the charity more accurately plan their budget throughout the year (and also eliminates most additional solicitations from that charity, saving them time and resources).

  10. John Soares says:

    I really like the idea of a charity account with a fixed amount. Now I basically react on a case-by-case basis, which is not the best way to do it.

    And Courtney is spot on about pledging a monthly amount to a charity; I just wonder about actually getting the money to them. If you have to write a check and spend 40-something cents on a stamp every month…

  11. MattJ says:

    #10 John Soares:

    My money to United Way is handled by paycheck deduction. My money to Mercy Corps is automatically deducted from a rewards credit card. Both are regular (paycheck is biweekly, credit card gets charged monthly) and neither costs me anything to send.

    There is another (more selfish than Courtney’s) possible reason to give steadily to a couple of charities you choose. If you charity hop – $50 here, $100 there, $25 at yet another place, then eventually one of the shadier charities will decide that your contact information is worth more to them than the small possibility that you’ll ever donate to them again, and your name may start appearing on lists of donors that the shadier charities buy & sell amongst each other, and then you’ll really start getting solicited. On the other hand, steady giving to a charity makes it against their interest to sell your name to their competition – as it is, Mercy Corps doesn’t want Feed The Children or the American Red Cross to know about me so these competing organizations can hit me up for the money that I’m currently donating to MC. That lines MC’s goals up with mine nicely, as I also don’t want to receive solicitations from other charities.

  12. Jackie says:

    I donate a fixed amount each month to two of my favorite charities, one with each of my bi-weekly pay checks. In my budget tracker they are listed along with my regular bills. One of those is Kiva, which is not like a regular charity at all, it’s mico-lending so if times ever get hard for me I can pull that money back out (I think of it a series of zero-interest CDs that help someone else while I’m not using it.) The other is my local public radio station.

    Lately it seems like for many of my donations, I end up getting something in return, like signing up for a guided hike with the local trails association or a concert benefiting Charity XYZ or girl scout cookies. I’ll take those funds from whichever bucket seems most suitable (leisure, groceries…)

    I give emergency donations or other non-planned donations out of my general monthly money.

  13. Courtney says:

    @ John and Matt – Mine is set up the same way; I have a small donation to the American Cancer Society that comes directly out of my paycheck every two weeks (and is matched by my employer); We also have recurring monthly gifts to the ASPCA, my alma mater, and various other organizations that are charged directly to a rewards credit card (which we pay off monthly). No stamps, no checks, no fuss.

  14. Jackie says:

    Forgot to mention too. The grocery store I go to most often has a food bank bin. I try to buy something and put it in the bin every time I’m at the store. I choose something that I’m also buying for myself because I know the food banks end up with lots and lots of canned green beans and not much variety. This usually works out to a few dollars a week. I use my grocery budget for this.

  15. Jane says:

    I must admit that I am having a hard time with charity at the moment and how many of them operate. Unfortunately, I find my disillusionment is an emotion I use to put off giving altogether, which isn’t right. For instance, last year we gave money to a cancer charity in memory of a friend’s mother who died of cancer. Now, we receive these bulky letters in the mail every few months. The amount of money we gave was so small (relatively) and directed at a specific event that I don’t appreciate that the charity decided to put us on their list. I also believe they call on occasion. This just bothers me and makes me not want to give in the future. The same thing happened when we gave to a charity for the earthquake in Haiti. It just frustrates me that I have to call every time and ask to be removed from their mailing list. I know they have to fund raise, but why so much paper and flashy brochures? This just makes me think they spend money on advertising rather than the actual cause.

  16. That’s a really good idea. My husband and I tithe 10% of our income automatically to our church and throughout the year we do give to people that we see need it. I never thought about doing a bank account since we have our tithe set up to automatically withdraw but that’s a really good idea!

  17. Des says:

    @Jane – The same thing happened to me when I gave to ASPCA for an event at my workplace. Now I get mailings weekly from all manner of sketchy animal “charities” wanting donations. I heard the reason they do this is because people who gave once are statistically much more likely to give in the future. You can take solace in knowing they do this because it does in fact raise more money than it costs, irritating though it may be.

  18. Jane says:

    @Des – It sounds like in your situation they even sold or gave your information to other groups. That REALLY makes me mad, and I do not hesitate to tell a charity that does that they’ve really overstepped the bounds and that I will never give again. One reason I haven’t given to our local branch of NPR is that a friend did and he started receiving mailings from every local non-profit. It’s hard. I’m tempted to send cash in an envelope so that they can’t trace it, but honestly, I want the tax deduction!

    Like Trent, I refuse to give to any charity who disturbs my family at dinnertime. While less of an intrusion, I find the mailings turn me off as well.

  19. Sandy L says:

    I’ve actually done the opposite and give to fewer charities now because of the issues 17 and 18 are referring to. There are quite a few organizations on my banned for life list. Sorry American Cancer society, NRDC, and most animal charities..you’re off the list. It took great effor to get taken off the lists they sold my names to.

    I also learned that there is a secondary reason for giving to fewer charities. If you give $500 to one group, that org is less likely to sell your name than if you give $20. I don’t know how true that is but the ones I give the most to I have never had issues with.

  20. Debbie M says:

    My comment is still awaiting moderation because it has a website in it, but I just wanted to say that I give anonymously through Just Give dot org so that I don’t get any junk mail. You do have to pay them something like 3% in overhead, but that’s much less than the overhead at my employer where I had the same benefit.

  21. Jennifer says:

    Lots of good info. In my experience, the Salvation Army in my city does a lot of good work. I work for a social service organization that connects people with services, and I can’t count the number of times the Salvation Army has been the only place I can send someone. They run a nightly soup van, operate a men’s shelter and a food bank, will put families up in a hotel for a few nights if needed, and run a variety of other programs. They have a fundraising dinner every year, and it is FREE to attend, with the hope (but not the expectation) that people will donate to them.

    Sorry to sound soapbox-y, but I dislike it when people slag a charity because they’ve “heard” something about it. In my community, they do amazing work, and I don’t begrudge them anything. They also don’t nag me!

  22. Leah says:

    I’m a member of Minnesota Public Radio, and I was able to specifically request that they do NOT sell my address. Perhaps this is because I became a “sustaining member” — I have $10 a month charged to my credit card.

    I try to give to really local charities, as they’re less likely to put my name on a list. I give to my local nature center, local food bank, local library, etc. Also, I know exactly where my money is going. Especially with the local nature center, I take classes and go hiking there, so my donations pay to keep those guided hikes and classes cheap or free for all, regardless of ability to pay.

  23. MattJ says:

    We’ve had a couple of people speak up for giving locally, and I just want to take the other side of that issue.

    America is the wealthiest country in the world. Americans (individuals, corporations, foundations) give around $300 billion to charity every year. About 90% of that giving stays right here in the US. That means only about 10% of our charitable giving has a chance of making it to places like Africa, India, South America, Southeast Asia… these are the places where the vast majority of the truly poor live.

    I know they’re not your neighbors, they’re never going to be able to look you in the eye and say ‘thank you’, and you won’t be able to share any of the things your charitable dollars provide. But the billion or so people on this planet who live on a dollar or less every day really need help, in ways that even the poorest of Americans will never imagine.

  24. Shevy says:

    As one of my main job responsibilities is to manage the donor database for the international charity I work for, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to Jane’s complaint about being placed on a solicitation list after making a small donation.

    If you don’t want to receive solicitations the very best time to tell a non-profit that is the first time you donate to them! When you send in that donation, write on a note or the form or whatever “Please Do Not Solicit”. That way, when you are first entered into the database you can be coded DNS.

    The next best time to make yourself DNS (or “No Telephone Solicitation” if you’d rather just receive material by mail) is right after you get a mailing or a phone call. Call the office and politely ask them to make the change. Since most phone solicitations you receive from non-profits are either from volunteers or paid telemarketers rather than the office staff, you’re better off to call the office rather than asking the caller to remove you from the list.

    Why do you go on a list in the first place? We’re not mind readers. If you make a donation you *must* be entered into the database in order to get your tax receipt at the end of the year and the default is for donors to receive all solicitations.

    I should point out that I only do 3 real solicitations per year. One is a mailing sent to pretty much everyone on the database who isn’t DNS, one is a telephone solicitation about 6 months later and we *try* to reach as many people as possible, while the 3rd one is a gala dinner only aimed at about 1,000 donors. Other non-profits may solicit more often. Of the 3, the dinner invitation is the only really fancy one because we’re competing with half a dozen other agencies who are also having their dinners over a period of a couple of months and you’re probably not going to all 6 at about $200 per plate.

    As for selling lists, things are different in the US. I’m in Canada and our Privacy Act has pretty well put an end to non-profits sharing their lists. Frankly, we never really did it anyway except in a very casual way, for example, calling another community agency to see if they had a new address for someone that we had been asked to send a tribute card out to.

  25. deRuiter says:

    “Brian Gallagher, President and CEO of United Way, was paid $432,709 in salary and benefits in fiscal 2003. (Source: Charity Navigator)” This is why, along with the salaries of his staff, I refuse to give to United Way. The head of the Salvation army receives $94,000. per year. Mr. Gallagher also receives other perks like transportation costs, entertaining budget. The only reason to give to United Way is if you work for a large company and weight is given to contributions when considering promotions. Buying food at a bake sale can’t be considered charity if you’re going to have it for dessert! If you pay income taxes in America you are already giving generaous amounts to burgeoning dictatorships all over the world. Better to donate locally and help your struggling neighbors.

  26. MattJ says:

    #25 deRuiter:

    As I said, US citizens give approximately $30 billion of their approx. $300 billion / year charitable donations to the needy overseas. Your tax dollars add another $15 billion, (of international aid, not necessarily charitable dollars) and, as you said, often go to dictatorial governments.

    Strange then that you consider that ‘generous’. If I was a poverty-stricken Egyptian I probably wouldn’t be that grateful for your tax dollars that went to support my dictator’s military budget, but a school kept open by a charitable nonprofit might give me a better life.

    How is your logic any different than if I said “If you pay income taxes in America you are already giving generous amounts to America’s poor”? Care to compare our foreign aid budget to the cash that Uncle Sam spends on WIC, Medicaid, subsidized housing, school lunches, schools, etc, for
    the poor?

  27. Claudia says:

    I give locally. To the food shelf and we know of some families who need assistance that we give money to anonymously. I refuse to give to most national organizations because of the poor management of their funds, i.e. higher than average wages and the way they solicit for funds. Many charities contract their solicitation out, so 30 – 50% of your donation goes to the professional solicitation companies. Check out the charities there are many that less than 20% of the cash collected actually is used for charitable purposes.

  28. SLCCOM says:

    I have to put in a pitch for the Shrine Hospitals. They take not one cent in overhead; all money goes to support the hospitals. (Money to support the Shrine comes from dues and fundraisers that are clearly labeled to be for the Shrine, not the hospitals. Generally the fundraisers for the Shrine are done among members.) Shriners and Masons donate collectively over $2.5 million PER DAY to their charities.

    Until very recently, when the choice was either to close some of the hospitals or start billing the childrens’ insurance companies, they didn’t even collect any money from the insurance companies.

    Shriners also pay into and raise money for a Transportation Fund, which pays to get the kids to the hospitals, and for the family to be able to stay with the children. And they are using telemedicine, so they can do followup doctor visits without the transportation costs when possible.

    Any readers who know of a child with orthopedic, cleft palate, or burn problems should contact their local Shriners or Masonic Lodge and see if that child can get help at one of the hospitals. If they are medically eligible and under 18 they will be treated. Much of the knowledge of how to treat burns and the other medical issues was developed by Shrine doctors.

    And support the Shrine in a fun way by enjoying one of your local Shrine Circuses!

  29. Jamie says:

    My husband and I have used a charity account for several years now, and we love it! We set apart a certain percentage of our income, and as requests come our way, we give when we feel led. We also use the account to support an orphan in India; it’s all automated so the check comes right out of the account each month, so I don’t have to worry about it (thanks to ING!). As far as feeling pressured to give, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling people no as long as you are polite when doing it; we only give to causes we belie in.

  30. Georgia says:

    I give about 20% annually. I give to the church, to 3 radio ministries, to 2 children & their families in Africa, to the church college I attended, and, this last year, I was able to give enough to let 2 children receive cleft palate surgery. I hope to up this some.

    I give most of the money by cc. I have 3 automatic cc payments and 1 EFT from my checking account. Giving automatically removes the need to re-evaluate each year. I’m thankful that I have enough to give. I have been blesed and I want to carry it forward.

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