Updated on 10.23.08

Giving Outside the Box: Generosity on a Limited Budget

Trent Hamm

Charity by Sir Joseph Boehm by mira66 on Flickr!Many of us want to give to others. We see others in need and deeply desire to reach out and help them. We want to give to the charities we care about and to other causes. Many people want to give to their church or religious organization as well, using that as a conduit for helping the community and the world.

That desire is often counterbalanced by financial reality. When it comes down to the cold reality of making all of our bills for the month. many of us are pressed to make very hard choices that we don’t wish to make. Is it really fair to make a choice between a check to Habitat for Humanities and a check for our mortgage? Yet, quite often, that’s the type of choice many of us have to make.

My response to that is simple: give what you have. No one expects or wants you to put yourself in a deep personal crisis to give. Instead, give of those things which you have in abundance and wait until your financial life is in order to contribute money.

Instead, contribute of yourself in other ways. Here are six powerful ways to donate in ways that don’t force you into difficult and painful financial choices.

Give things you can make You might be pinched so tight that you can’t afford to drop a check in the collection plate, but you can take the pears from that pear tree behind your house and make several dozen jars of pear butter. Take those jars and give them to the organization you’d like to help for an auction or to give away to the needy. Another option: do what my father has always done. He grows an abundance of vegetables in his garden and gives much of the bounty away to others. What can you make (or grow) that has great value to others? Figure that out, step up to the plate, and give away the fruits of your labor.

Give your time Tempted to donate to public radio but scared it’ll put you in a tough spot with your bills? Offer to donate your time doing a menial task like answering the phone during pledge weeks. Offer to work as a receptionist a few hours a week for them. Your gift of time can often be much more valuable than the money you could scrape together.

Give your patience Most charities have menial tasks that no one wants to do. In lieu of putting your money in their hands, put your patience there instead. Recently, I did this myself by taking on the task of rewriting a very lengthy document that needed to be rewritten in order to maintain the legal status of an organization. It didn’t take smarts to do it – just a lot of patience and a willingness to jump through all of those hoops to get everything right. Perhaps you can show your patience by volunteering to help with preschool Sunday school classes or as an assistant one day a week with Head Start.

Give your compassion Hospice organizations often desperately need people with great compassion to step forward and help out with people in end-life situations. If you’re a deeply compassionate person, this is another spectacular way to give something special of yourself, a gift others with plenty of money in their pocket are often unable and unwilling to give.

Give your expertise Many people have strengths in a particular area – computer programming, paralegal skills, teaching skills, etc. These skills have great value to others and that’s why they can often help you to earn a solid paycheck. Applying these skills to a charitable organization can be even more valuable – if you can offer your programming skills to help an organization develop a key piece of software, you’ve given the cost of someone to consult for that piece of software, and that can be a sizable amount. Got skills with accounting? Serving as a free auditor for charities you care about can bring tremendous value to their door.

“Give what you can” doesn’t have to mean squeezing an extra nickel from a rock. Instead, take a broader look at things. What can you really give? When you find ways to give, you’ll find a great deal of additional fulfillment in life, often in ways you never expected.

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  1. Stars says:

    I totally agree. I am trying really hard to think out side of the box and find ways to give of myself. so far I have to sponsor children in Africa, I use the money I would spend on Tim Horton’s/Starbucks and make my own Chai Tea.

  2. Johanna says:

    These are all good ideas. But if you asked the charities for their honest opinion, I think they’d usually say that they’d rather have donations of money than donations of time. A charity with a surplus of money and a deficit of people-power can always hire someone to do the work they need, but there’s no similarly easy solution available to a group with too many volunteers but not enough money.

    If you have to choose between donating to charity and paying the mortgage, then by all means pay the mortgage. But how many of us are really faced with a choice like that? More likely, we’re faced with the choice of donating to charity or going out to dinner, donating to charity or buying a more expensive car, donating to charity or buying a book that we don’t really need, or a CD, or the latest electronic gadget. Few of us in the rich world are so strapped for money that we can’t tighten our belts a little bit to give some money to those who are less fortunate, and pretending that we are is just dishonest.

  3. Good points all. I volunteer most months at a local food bank. I have plenty of time, and giving it away doesn’t interfere with my financial goals. I’ve always been more likely to volunteer my time rather than donate money. Perhaps that’s a function of never having made a great deal of money myself.

  4. Johanna says:

    Or perhaps another way to put it is: If you have to choose between donating to charity and paying the mortgage, then you shouldn’t have taken on such a big mortgage.

  5. Adam says:

    Giving to charity is so important to us that we keep it as a line item in the monthly budget. This way we don’t put ourselves in the position to decide if and how much of our extra finances we should give when we have it. Some organizations we contribute to regularly and some of the budget goes to the “miscellaneous charity-of-the-month”.

  6. Cheska Lim says:

    I do not have much free time, so what I do is donate blood! I think it really would be wonderful if more people donate blood, if they can. I also volunteer with http://www.onebrick.org, a non-profit agency which serves as a liaison between organizations who need volunteers for certain events and tasks. There is no long-term commitment, events are listed weekly, so if you happen to be available for a day, you can check if they have some activities you can volunteer for. Hope this helps!

  7. BonzoGal says:

    Johanna, I disagree. I worked for three different nonprofits over ten years, and we always desperately needed volunteer help. Hiring people is more expensive that you think- not just salary, but benefits and training time are expensive. If volunteers with valuable knowledge and/or experience wanted to help, we were thrilled- that meant we could spend our donation dollars on the actual work rather than staffing.

    The low level of salary we could afford to pay people often meant that workers with skills that were in demand in the marketplace couldn’t afford to work for us, and instead took jobs at for-profit corporations.

    We were always happy to get monetary donations, but donations of time and work, again, meant that the money could be spent doing the actual work for which we existed.

    I’d also like to suggest that if a person is working for a mid-to-large sized company, organizing food drives at work is a real help! Local food banks will give you collection bags and barrels, and all you have to do is motivate your coworkers to bring in canned goods. Most food banks will then pick up the filled barrels. At my work we held contests between departments, and held “bring a can, get a home-made cookie” parties in our lunchroom.

  8. matt says:

    I don’t have a lot of extra cash, but I do like to donate blood every 56 days. In this way I am giving something people really need, without having to pinch my own wallet.

  9. Mikey says:

    Great post!

    On my way to work this morning, I heard Ira Glass (This American Life on NPR) shaming a long time listener who had never “supported his local public radio station” into sending in some money. The listener, a student, had been “outed” by a friend.

    I have to say, I was at best annoyed and at worst maybe incensed. I get that Glass was trying to be cute, but it just didn’t work for me.

  10. CaGirl says:

    Or simply do what you can. I would love to volunteer but I have too much going on to find time. Instead, I do what I can within my budget. I give to a local food bank, $5 per month, and anything from $20 – $100 when I get a bonus or a good tax return. There are three other charities that contact me once a year, each of them gets around $20. It’s not much, but more than I gave five years ago when I could only afford to give $10 once a year to one charity. Make sure the bills are paid, but the little amounts can add up too – especially if you donate online so the charity doesn’t have as many costs associated with collecting the donation.

  11. Jaime says:

    I’m a regular blood/platelet donor at my local university blood center. I go about once a month to donate platelets (which is less time in between donations than the 56 days for whole blood), and I get to watch a movie during the donation. My blood center also gives out movie passes or Starbucks cards for each donation–it’s totally a win-win situation, although I’d still do it without the perks. Of course, not everyone can donate blood for a variety of reasons (e.g., travel to certain places, use of certain medications, fear of needles), but it’s definitely something to consider if you are able.

    I also volunteer 2-3 hours per month or so at a local community group, which doesn’t require as much of a commitment as larger organizations (8-10 hours per month). And I donate lots of physical items to charity (e.g., old towels to the local dog shelter or vet, old clothes and household items to Goodwill), which has tax benefits (albeit relatively small).

    Finally, I believe that generosity expands well beyond giving time and money to specific organizations or causes. Being generous to other people in day-to-day life is a truly wonderful thing. I’m thankful every time someone holds an elevator for me in my parking garage, or helps me reach something on a high shelf in a grocery store.

  12. justin says:

    you are exactly right!

  13. Johanna, I agree with your second paragraph. The vast majority of us could find some little non-necessity to cut out so that we could give.

    Regarding the OP, I often find that I end up with more free stuff than I really need. Sometimes I can make even money on buying stuff like hair dye or toiletries, so in the past, I’ve just packed up a box of that stuff and sent it off to the women’s shelter.

  14. Brigid says:

    I disagree with Johanna. I work in my local City Hall, and we have quite a few volunteers, all of whom are much appreciated. We have senior citizens who help answer phones, special-needs teenagers who come in as part of a life skills class to do typing, filing, and copying, summer interns, and even kids doing court-ordered community service.

    Like all muncipalities, we try to spend the taxpayer dollars as wisely as possible. Well-trained volunteers with good skills are a huge asset to us, but even untrained workers with no skills can save us valuable time when we have a big project to complete.

    There are several upsides for the volunteers. Some of the senior citizens get a break on their property taxes, if they meet state income guidelines. The teenagers get a glowing letter of recommendation. And we sometimes hire the best of the volunteers for paid work; one moved on to a full-time job in the city. Also, our office is a warm, friendly place, and people genuinely enjoy working there.

    Not every organization needs volunteers, but some definitely do. Be willing to make a small but regular commitment—a couple of hours a week is fine, as long as you stick to it—and be as professional as you would be on a real job.

  15. Amber C says:

    These are great ideas. As a family we do a combination of volunteering and giving monetary donations. I think my children learn much more from the volunteering.

    We benefitted greatly from the Hospice volunteer that was assigned to my mother before her death. There is no way to put a dollar value on what she did not only for my mother but for our entire family.

  16. cv says:

    I think whether organizations appreciate volunteers depends a lot on what type of volunteer you are. Wanting to show up on a Saturday for a one shot deal asks the organization to invest a lot of training in you for little payback. If you’re willing to show up and do boring clerical tasks during regular business hours consistently (like, every week or every other week), then the organization will likely really value you. I volunteered in the office of a Habitat for Humanity chapter. They were overwhelmed with people who wanted to do construction on their houses on Saturdays, but they were struggling to maintain their volunteer records and database, and really counted on the volunteers who came in regularly to do data entry.

  17. Kris Knoke says:

    I appreciated your take on donating time. Another place to donate time is something near and dear to my heart, long term care facilities. There are a number of people in nursing homes who seldom have visitors. People need compassion, but equally important is companionship. Thanks for your insight. Contact your local nursing home activities department, they usually love having volunteers.

  18. Vroobelek says:

    Just my two cents. A great way to give time and expertise is contributing to Wikipedia. Each article that we improve will be used by thousands of people.

  19. Shevy says:

    I, like BonzoGal, have worked for several non-profits and we’re always looking for both donors and volunteers. If we take in more money, it generally goes towards our projects, not towards hiring staff (at least not staff in our offices).

    What we have had to do is use telemarketers for some of our phone calling (we do an annual phone campaign at one point in the year and a mail campaign at a different time) because we cannot get enough volunteers to phone everybody. We were leaving a *lot* of money on the table by not reaching those people and the increased donations more than pay for the telemarketing company. But we’d rather have enough volunteers.

    It’s much easier to get volunteers to stuff envelopes and stick on address labels than to get people to phone and ask for a donation, even though we give them a script and they’re calling regular donors.

    As for Johanna’s contention that most people could manage to tighten their belts a bit and donate, that may be true, but it would be an extremely offensive tactic to use on donors. Besides in our community, like many others, there aren’t enough big donors to really spread things out. So every little pitcher (every agency) goes to the same well (the same pool of donors) over and over and over again. They are asked for dozens of small and not-so-small donations repeatedly through the year. Donate to this school. Donate to that hospital. Donate to this water project. Donate to that shelter for abused women. Come to our gala dinner. Donate to the senior’s home, etc. etc. etc.

    To what extent should someone cut back in order to donate? And who’s going to suggest that? Any fundraiser I know would urge someone on by saying positive things, not negative ones.

  20. Carmen says:

    I agree with Johanna. Especially this sentiment:

    “Few of us in the rich world are so strapped for money that we can’t tighten our belts a little bit to give some money to those who are less fortunate, and pretending that we are is just dishonest”.

    It’s a nice reminder that I need to do/give more to the less fortunate on a regular basis.

  21. Sara says:

    I try to give what I an on a limited budget. I always feel a special pull towards the local food pantry. If I give cash I feel that it goes far there because the staff is volunteer and I know that the food goes right to the people who need it. One way I help myself give more food is to shop for them the same way that I shop for my family. When good non-perishables are on sale for loss-leader prices, I stock up ($.88 tuna, $.50 pasta, etc.). Then it all goes to the food pantry. I scan the sales ads each week so I keep up with the best sales. Regular giving is part of our monthly budget. If our income goes up, so does our giving.

  22. Veer says:

    How do I go about finding a place who will need my skills or volunteering near my neighborhood.

    I have time to spare during the weekend where I can do volunteer work but don’t want to drive as I drive a lot during the week and am tired.

  23. Zella says:

    I donate food and personal care items that I get for free or almost free via coupons. I always keep brownie/cakequick bread mixes on hand (that I again, get for free-ish) so that I can bake for people in need or charity bake sales, no matter what my budget looks like.

    I also cook in large quantities so that if something comes up and I need to bring a meal to someone, I almost always have something in the freezer.

    And the people in my family who have everything they need already almost always get a notice that we’ve donated to Heifer in their name for Christmas (Heifer is a universal favorite in our family).

  24. Asiyah says:

    I’ve worked in many non-profits in the past years and Trent’s point about working in an office. I’d like to stress the point that the work that most non-profits need isn’t glamorous at all. They really need phone-answering, organizing files/clothes & etc. But it’s GREATLY appreciated, most people who work in non-profits work crazy hours so it all helps.

    Veer – in most places you can call United Way and tell them what you’d like to do and they’ll tell you which non-profits need help. Alternatively, just think about a cause that you are interested in supporting and call them. I’m sure they’ll have ideas.


  25. Georgia says:


    Check out volunteermatch.com. You can search volunteer projects by zip code, interest (kids, environment, the elderly, etc.), and other factors. It’s a great site.

  26. Kelly says:

    Since I quit my job a year ago and am a stay at home mom, money has become more scarce, but I now can make time to spend with the people and things I care about most: my child, my spouse, and as a volunteer (bringing my child with me) for our local arboretum and recently the local campaign office of my chosen presidential candidate. I also volunteered in the office of the local orchestra when I had a babysitter. It’s amazing how good it feels to do something that is of value to others! I hope some day soon to find a new career path in this way.

  27. David says:

    I’d like to recommend donating whole blood. No suitable substitue exists for whole blood, and not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett can give more than you can. It takes less than 2 hours, and you can do it as frequently (or infrequently?) as every two months.

    I know Trent had a post a while ago about being paid to donate plasma, but I’m talking about whole blood used for transfusions (which, if I recall correctly, cannot be “paid for” due to Health protocols.) Your local Red Cross or hospital can give you more info.

  28. Johanna says:

    Regarding whether charities have more need for donations of time or donations of money: Fair enough, some people have had experiences that differ from mine. But charities for which I’ve volunteered have made it clear to me that while they appreciate my time, what they really need is money. And charities to which I donate often don’t offer opportunities for volunteer work at all.

    Shevy, of course I’m not suggesting that charity workers themselves should tell potential donors, “You need to stop buying so many toys so you can donate to us instead.” Of course that would be offensive, stupid, and counterproductive. But as a non-charity-worker, I’m challenging Trent’s claim that there are lots of people who can’t afford to donate any money at all. If you think you are such a person, what exactly are you spending your money on instead that’s so important?

    The question of how much belt-tightening is enough is a good one. I think CaGirl has a good approach: Just donate something, and then increase that amount each year as your situation improves. That’s what I do. I just got a raise, so I just increased my monthly donation to Oxfam.

  29. beth says:

    I have to second donating blood as something almost anyone can do, regardless of economic status. There isn’t any fiscal replacement for that, and depending on your situation, you can donate as often as every 2 months. Our blood bank here is so short-supplied that they call me almost exactly 54 days after each donation to see if they can schedule me for another one.

    There are a lot of places that rely exclusively on volunteers, too, and don’t hire for anything except the managerial positions. My teenagers and I go over to the local Habitat store now and then to help them stock shelves and clean the store. The only 2 employees there either manage the store or process all the inventory, as well as manage all the volunteers & donations. They can’t get enough help in there. It doesn’t take too much research to find some places that would rather have help than money for some tasks.

    Anyone who’s looking for someplace to give time can always check volunteermatch.org to see if there’s anything listed there in their area. Food banks, Habitat, the library, and schools are always good places to call to ask if they might know who needs help, too.

  30. Julie says:

    Trent, I have never replied to any of your posts before but I have to respond to this one.

    Johanna, your comments about donations and charity are the very reasons that I am so loath to donate. If an entity needs my donations, but aren’t willing to take what I am willing and/or able to give, my time, my materials, my products, but instead only want money… why in the heck would I want to donate to them.

    You project a very moralistic and self-righteous attitude about giving… as if giving FREELY to whatever cause I would like is not the entire point of giving. I pay taxes so that the federal government can fund programs such as welfare, medicare, medicaid etc. That is all I am required to pay by the state. Charity is extra, and I may have a very black heart, but your attitude sets me running far away from donating anything.

    As for people who are not able to give money. Your judgmental attitude clearly shows how unwilling you are to consider that there are many things you do not know about your neighbors and coworkers. No one *ever* knows how someone spends their money. They could be supporting elderly parents, nieces, newphews or grandchildren no one else will. They could be riding the poverty line, but pride keeping them from accepting help. Those that say no, could in fact disagree with your charities aims, the way they use the money, or feel more passionate about another cause. Or they might already tithe 10% of their pay to their church. I don’t know if you consider that a “worthy” charity, but that is definitly “giving”.

    As for those who give their time, that you so callously reject, perhaps the elderly are living on a restricted income, perhaps the teenagers have no other way to learn important job skills Perhaps that mother you are snearing at really can’t afford to donate to your chartiy, much less feed her children.

    “I’m challenging Trent’s claim that there are lots of people who can’t afford to donate any money at all. If you think you are such a person, what exactly are you spending your money on instead that’s so important?” Food, shelter, healthcare, education, daycare. Just to name a few.

  31. Art says:

    Never forget that we are all blessed to live in the greatest country in the world.

    Depite the current craziness of the markets, America has always rebounded and come back even stronger. It is up to AMERICANS to make sure this happens. Waiting for someone else to do it never works.

    Count your blessings and make your world better.

  32. Johanna says:

    Art, I am pretty sure that there are people who read this blog from outside the US.

  33. Cathy says:

    I donate a small amount of money per month to charities. I figured I used to spend that money on subscriptions like cable and World of Warcraft.

  34. colleen c says:

    Remember that many local organizations — not just charities — need volunteers. Our budget only allows small charitable donations, but I hope that I more than make up for that with the hundreds of hours I give yearly at my children’s schools. I am an officer in 2 PTOs and I also tutor, run fundraisers, help teachers and plan events. It is a “job” I love and I tell people all the time I have the greatest position in the world; I just don’t get paid. I am proud of the work I do at school and for my work I have made many wonderful friends. My point is, if local charities do not seem to need your help, check into a wider range of places like churches and schools, and I guarantee someone will be happy for your efforts.

  35. Cindy B. says:

    I donate blood every 8 weeks. Its my way of helping others without donating money. Blood cannot be manufactured, and can only be supplied by others. Red Cross recently allowed donations from 16 year olds with parents present. My daughter will be coming with me next time.

    Its especially healthful for men because it brings down the iron level in your blood.

  36. Debbie says:

    I volunteer once a week (on my lunch break) to see a woman in a nursing home. I bring her large print books from the library and simple things like homemade cookies. She is very appreciative and I enjoy doing this. Check with your local volunteer group or committee to protect the elderly.

  37. Matt says:

    I love this post. I am one who feels that when you give, you invoke an abundance mindset and you will attract prosperity.

  38. Art says:

    Johanna – I know for sure that Trent has alot of readers outside the United States.

    I will say it again: America is still the greatest country in the world. Depsite political problems, economic upheaval, wars, etc., we are still the greatest force for good and prosperity in the world. Just look at what happens when our economy falters. We may not get it right every single time, but Americans will always try to get it right. We have built history’s most sucessful country. Unfortunately, we have lost our bearings and forgotten some of the principles upon which this country was founded.

    America will rebound better and stronger IF we remember the guiding principles that made America and its ideals the hope of the world.

  39. Johanna says:

    I was referring to when you said “we are *all* blessed to live in the greatest country in the world.” Since “we” don’t all live in the same country, that’s just nonsense.

    Anyway. I live in the United States, and I think it’s a great country. But I’ve also lived in the United Kingdom, and I think that’s a great country too, full of good people who “try to get it right” just as much as Americans do. (There are plenty of other great countries, I’m sure – I just haven’t lived in any of them.)

    There are some areas where America is the best in the world, and lots of other areas where other countries do better. “Most powerful” does not always equal “best.” Sometimes I wish more of my fellow Americans would realize that.

  40. Johanna says:

    If, by “principles upon which this country was founded,” you mean things like religious tolerance, accountability of the government to the people, and checks and balances, then I agree with you. We haven’t done so well with those lately.

  41. Art says:

    Yes, we the people have allowed our government to twist and interpret the Constitution is ways that our forefathers never intended or imagined.

    America is not a government. America is a country of people founded on the principles of less government over what they had experienced in England. Peple back then were not looking for handouts and were more likely to obey and respect the common laws.

    Our founding fathers would puke if they saw what America has become.

  42. Tatiana says:

    Veer, VolunteerMatch (http://www.volunteermatch.org/) is a good way to search for volunteer opportunities near you, if you are in the US.

    I budget 5% of my take-home pay for charity, and send automatic monthly contributions to four organizations – a mix of local, national, and global, and a mix of issues important to me.

  43. Johanna says:

    I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that the founding fathers or any of their contemporaries ever imagined how fabulously wealthy their nation – and indeed many others – would become. Back then, having the government provide for the basic needs of everyone was not even an option, because there was not always enough to go around. But now there is.

  44. Johanna says:

    @Julie: If you’re using comments of anonymous people on the internet as an excuse not to donate to charity, I highly suspect that you would just have found some other excuse anyway. Good luck to you.

  45. Lee says:

    Interesting.. I just posted about more or less exactly the same thing on my blog (spurned by your “giving pocket” post), and then I find this one further down. D’oh!

  46. Borealis says:

    Don’t give to public radio. They pay their executives a huge amount of money because they are “peers” of for-profit radio executives.

    Don’t give to charities that send you solicitations.

    Sit down, think about what charities you want to support, and send them checks. Tell them not to send you any material, as most good charities spend 25% of their funds on fundraising, and bad charities spend much more.

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