As the end of the year rapidly nears, many of us stop to take stock of our finances. (Or would, if we weren't running around like crazy people amidst the holiday rush.) Charities of all stripes are quick to remind us that donations made by Dec 31st can count as deductions on this year's taxes - and who couldn't use more of those?
But as someone who sits on the Board of Trustees for a non-profit and writes grants for a living (and therefore is in a prime position to see where money is being funneled to and what it's used for), may I offer two words of wisdom to consider while making your charitable and financial decisions this holiday season?
Tip #1: Consider giving at the individual level.
By law, non-profits are almost never able to give money directly to individuals and it's exceptionally
rare that they are able to directly pay for what struggling families or individuals actually need - things like relief from suffocating medical bills, house/car repairs, or groceries. If your heart is to make a powerful difference in people's lives, consider giving at the individual level this year. There are all kinds of ways to go about this, but whichever method you choose, this is one of the most powerful ways to use your dollars to produce real change in a person/family's life.
Tip #2: Always specify what your donations can be used for.
If you decide to donate to an organization, always specify what your donation can be used for. This is as simple as writing the program or purpose on your check, in the online donation form, or on an envelope holding your cash.
Why does this matter? Because unless you've done really thorough research, you might be shocked (and a little appalled) by how your money is used. Sure, every organization uses some of its income to pay for boring, non-missional expenses like printer paper and phone service. But few people are aware of just how diverse organizations' programs tend to be - especially if the organization makes grants itself, channeling the money into other non-profits.
Case in point: I was recently researching a funding opportunity for a client and encountered a grant program run by a huge and extremely well known cancer research non-profit that dished out fairly substantial amounts money every year. Based on the organization's slogans, events, and marketing, 99% of people raising money for or donating to it understandably believe their money is going towards finding a cure - i.e. research, experimental treatment programs, and other highly scientific, medically-based efforts.
|Aura paintings.... one of the |
many things you wouldn't expect
to find being funded with your
cancer research donations.
When I pulled up the information on what had actually been funded, however, I discovered that they'd spent a good chunk of money on therapeutic retreats for cancer victims and survivors consisting of Reiki, aura readings/ aura painting, yoga, journaling instruction, and nature walks.
While I fully appreciate the therapeutic value of nature and journaling, but I'm pretty sure that when people wrote checks to this organization in memory of loved ones lost to cancer, they fully expected the money to go to new treatments that might prevent their children and grandchildren from being lost or suffering loss to this terrible disease - not pay for cancer survivors to sit around a table with glitter paint, talking about their auras.
As a grant writer, I see situations like this all the time. So if you donate money this season, take the extra 30 seconds to spell out what your money can be used for (be it a general programmatic priority like cancer research, or the title of the program that prompted you to want to give such as Mercy House new construction). In an era where money is painfully tight and non-profits are increasingly viewing themselves as businesses rather than charities, it's critically important that we retain responsibility for ensuring good stewardship of our money and make our donations count.