How to make the biggest impact with your charitable giving

If it seems like everyone is asking for a donation these days, you’re right. Here’s how your money can make the greatest impact.

How to make the biggest impact with your charitable giving
[Photo: Flickr user Rachel Titiriga]

If it feels like you’re being inundated with requests for charitable donations, it’s not your imagination. Suddenly we’re not just being asked to give through direct mail and phone solicitations; our friends and colleagues are making direct appeals for donations on social media, too.


There used to be a maximum of 2 million nonprofits that were asking for donations, says Larry Lieberman, chief operating officer for Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that evaluates the performance, efficiency, and effectiveness of charitable organizations. Today, anyone who uses social media can also ask for money on behalf these organizations—and many people do, he says.

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Add to that a heightened sense of activism, with many Americans giving to organizations that are threatened by policies being proposed or enacted by President Donald Trump, and suddenly we’re facing more requests for giving, more often and on new platforms, Lieberman says. “Organizations called out by the president received the big increases in donations in the first 90 days after Trump’s inauguration,” he says.

That giving hasn’t slowed down. Individuals gave U.S. charities an estimated $286.65 billion in 2017, an increase of 5.2%, according to Giving USA.

At a time when every cause seems like a worthy cause, it’s essential to have strategy for giving that is proactive rather than reactive. Here are six ways to ensure your charitable giving has the most impact.


Treat philanthropy like an investment

Before giving money to an organization, research your options, much like you would vet a financial investment. There are many ways to find out what impact the organization is having, Lieberman says. You can search the news to find out what people are saying about the organization’s work, and if the organization is local, you can call and ask if you can stop by, tour the facility and see them in action. There are also several organizations, in addition to Charity Navigator, which evaluate the effectiveness of charitable organizations, including GiveWell and Impact Matters.

Also, don’t forget to check in with an organization three to six months after you have donated money to see what progress has been made, Lieberman says.

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Don’t feel obligated

“We discourage people from giving when they receive a phone call from an organization,” Lieberman says. “Being asked is not a sufficient reason to give.” Similarly, don’t limit yourself to donating only to charities that send you mail, says Isabel Arjmand, a research analyst at GiveWell, which publishes a list of nine top charities that are evidence-backed, underfunded, and cost-effective. “Instead of choosing between nice marketing pitches, look at what your dollar will achieve,” says Elijah Goldberg, cofounder and chief operating officer of ImpactMatters.

Understand what your donation achieves, not what it buys

Because it is much easier to measure what items were purchased with donations, rather than what was actually achieved, many organizations and donors conflate the two. For instance, Goldberg says, a community program to help rehabilitate offenders can spend money running a job-training program, but if the program doesn’t help participants to get hired six months after the program ends, then nothing donors care about has changed. Rather than reporting to donors how many training programs were offered, the organization should report how many people found full-time jobs as a result of that training. Don’t be shy about asking organizations, “What will this dollar achieve?” he says.


Consider giving to underfunded organizations

After the 2016 presidential election, the ACLU was flush with donations. Giving more money to an organization that already has a full coffer doesn’t do anyone any good. For instance, GiveWell has considered listing some immunization programs in its top nine charities list, but most are already fully funded, Arjmand says. “We could direct more funding to them, but it wouldn’t allow them to do more of their program,” she says.

Related: Americans gave a record $410 billion to charity last year

Evaluate your giving

Check to see if your employer has a matching program for donations, and consider giving a monthly recurring donation rather than a onetime donation. “If an organization has a recurring donor, it can project what their revenue will be for the rest of the year, rather than waiting for the holidays to see what comes in,” Lieberman says. While digital transactions have made it easier for people to give and for organizations to process that funding, smaller donations do result in additional costs for nonprofits.

Develop your own mission statement

While it can be difficult to say no to a friend who is raising money for their favorite cause, there are ways to politely decline. Goldberg recommends talking about your mission and why you give to certain charities. Then when someone asks you to donate to a pet shelter, you can say, sounds like a great cause, but my giving goes to child health interventions, and here’s why. You’ll come across as a thoughtful giver who has a plan and a goal for how to give, he says, and a mission you’re trying to advance.

About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, technology and beer. Her articles appear in The Christian Science Monitor,, Family Circle and October.