Charity, Giving, to Whom to say “yes,” and how to say “No.”


Originally posted on on February 22, 2007.

I don’t have a billion dollars to give to the Bill Gates Foundation (or anywhere else), but I do consider myself a steward of the resources I am blessed to have received.  Giving is one of those issues that people seem loathe to discuss too much.  For one thing, nobody cares to listen to someone brag about how much he gives to such and such a cause, and most people are uncomfortable sharing that anyway.

You can probably talk to 100 different people and get 100 different views on giving money to charity.  Most people, whether they are Christian, another faith tradition, or no religion at all, have a desire to support causes important to them at some level.  Our giving in many ways reflects what is important to us.

I will not talk about dollar amounts, and I will state up-front that I am not implying our strategy would work for everyone.  But the following is how my wife and I have approached our charitable giving.

The first thing is to realize that we have a large family, a stay-at-home mom, and we homeschool.  This is not to make excuses for reducing our giving, but it is necessary to understand when looking at the budget that you simply must feed these kids (on most days, anyway) and purchase materials for school, and so on and so forth.  We also must give them shelter, preferably heated, and in most situations they actually wear clothes.  Now, everyone needs to be intellectually honest about their situation.  Shelter can mean anything from simple to extravagant, as can clothing, cars, and even food.   If you are using your 5000 square foot house with two new Lexus vehicles that you use to drive to a fancy restaurant every night as your excuse for why you cannot afford to give more to charity, then you’re not really sticking to the spirit of things.  But I’m not casting stones, either.  We live in America, and truth be told we all have a certain amount of luxury in our lives that, in the end, we probably could have eschewed in order to give a little bit more.

So, our overall stretch goal was initially established like this:  A few years ago, we put a budget together and determined what we could afford to give to charity.  But under the theory of “it should hurt a little,” we added to that.  In other words, we managed to find some things we could sacrifice in lieu of giving.  Don’t get me wrong here;  we’re not heroes.  We still dine out occasionally and have a nice TV and can afford a few luxuries.   We just cut those down from where we really wanted to be to more where we should be.  Some people suggest 10% of gross as the percentage everyone should give, based on the Bible (tithing).  We have not achieved that, but we’d like to get there.  But quite honestly, just like so many things in the Bible, I don’t think the actual number is near as important as what’s in your heart, and the spirit in which you are giving back.  For some, the stretch goal may be 2%, and for others it may be 25%.   What we have done since that first year is increase our giving over the previous year by no less than 10%.  Since my income (unfortunately) doesn’t increase in a typical year by more than 10%, then our giving as a percentage of gross continues to increase.  In most cases, I simply adjust my previous giving levels to my selected organizations by 10 or more percent, but I occasionally add a new organization or replace an existing one.  Each year we need to adjust to the higher giving level, so there is an element of sacrifice, but at the same time it is manageable.

The other element of all this is where the money goes.  In another post, I’ll actually discuss some charities that are important to us, but there are important systematic aspects to our approach: 

(1) Before the year even starts, we determine how much money will go to all the different charities.  We start by looking at what we gave last year to each organization and increasing it by 10 or more percent, but will occasionally change the mix a little bit.  This sets your goal for the year, not just in total, but by charity.  You can also then get an idea how much you should give each month to match your income flow.  It is also important to have a slush amount set aside for random things that arise throughout the year, so you can donate to Aunt Betty’s pet cause when she knocks on your door.

(2) As much as possible, with your larger or monthly donations, go with automatic withdrawal from checking, or auto charge to credit card.   I say this because it eliminates all temptation to skip a month.  This is my way of telling God that these are the “first fruits” of my labor.  I used to give what was left over, and it’s amazing how little can be left over when you approach your giving that way.

(3) When you get a call from a charity that sounds really good, tell them that you already budgeted for the year and they are not on part of the budget.  They may try to get “just $15” out of you.  Well, it’s up to you at that point, but I always stick to my budget, and using the budget as a reason  is a valid and truthful response that has worked for me and released me of a guilty conscience.  That said, if you think you may be interested in future contributions to that organization, ask them to send you information about them, or to be directed to a web site.  Then the next year, budget for them in advance.  But do not feel guilty about saying no, because you will know that you have already prayerfully thought about how you can best allocate your resources. 

(4) Record the date and amount of all your donations on a single sheet of paper, and keep it handy, along with your budgeted numbers.  This is good reference for taxes (but you must have and keep actual receipts this year for all cash donations) and it is also great for when you get a call from a charity that you donate to.  I may make a once-a-year donation in March to Charity X, and in September they may call me again.  It really helps the conversation if I tell them “I contributed $Y in March, and I only donate once a year.  I’ll be happy to contribute again next year.”  They almost never push me any further when I have that response.   Alternatively, if I get a call from a budgeted charity and have not yet donated, I can tell them that I will donate, when I will donate (if I can’t manage it now) and exactly how much.

So, that is our overall strategy.  It stretches us, but at the same time is manageable.  It keeps us on budget, and we know whom to say yes to and whom to say no to.  When you donate to a few places, it seems like as time goes on, every other piece of mail you get is some kind of solicitation from them as well as other groups, many of which are very good and consistent with your values.  You simply can’t give to everyone, though!  I keep the most recent solicitation for any group I contribute to so I have it handy when I am ready, on my schedule, to send a donation.  I throw away most of the others that are not in my budget.  Occasionally, I keep information on a new one for consideration in next year’s budget.  This gives me time to think about and look into the organization.   But at some point, you need to boil it down to a number that you can manage, at contribution levels that are worthwhile.

So there you have it!  A boring post, perhaps, but hopefully a fitting one as Lent is underway and people are trying to figure out this “giving alms” thing.

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