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How to Give: Do small gifts really make a difference?

Lansie Sylvia. March 2, 2016 Category: ColumnFeaturedFundingLong

How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers.

This week’s first question:

Do small gifts really make a difference?

The short answer is yes.


Without a doubt.

And I’m going to give you lots of facts to back that up. Firstly, 72 percent of all charitable dollars come from individuals.  Secondly, on average, 12 to 49 percent of an average nonprofits’ annual income comes from small donors. Finally, when you calculate giving as a percentage of income, individuals who earn less than $20,000 per year are twice as charitable as those earning $100,000.

That’s right — the people who can afford it the least are the ones who give the most. There are no buildings named after these generous individuals, no parades in their honor. And this gets to the bigger issue: Even if you can know you’re making a difference with your smaller gifts, it’s hard to feel like you are.

So why do we give? We give to have genuine impact, but we also give to feel like we’re making a difference. The world can be a big and scary place, and targeting our disposable income toward fixing something in the world gives us a sense of agency. Plus, it feels really good to help someone. It especially feels really good when you’re rewarded for it, perhaps in the form of a thank you note or a Twitter shoutout.

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If you’re not receiving thank you notes or proper acknowledgement for a gift, you can let that nonprofit know! Things can fall through the cracks, and you could be the victim of a weird mail merging error. As a past development director, I can tell you that I would always rather know when something isn’t right than have a donor hold his or her tongue because they didn’t want to seem too pushy.

The easiest way to feel like you’re making a difference is to regularly connect with the causes you support, either through volunteering or just actually reading the newsletters they send you (as opposed to filing them to read later, i.e. never.)

If you’re really craving that high-touch, personal connection in exchange for your donation, consider donating to a smaller organization. A hundred bucks might not be a significant gift to your university alma mater, but it’s definitely going to be noticed by your favorite podcast. Want your small gifts to go even further? Consider supporting international NGOs. Five dollars can make a huge difference to people living in extreme poverty.

This week’s second question:

I’m totally overwhelmed by the breadth of worthy organizations in need. It’s so hard for me to determine who is the “most” deserving. Should I choose an organization that I really like and believe in, or one that I think will have the most impact?

In his widely viewed 2013 TED talk, the Australian ethicist Peter Singer argues for effective altruism, the idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the “most good you can do,” which involves “unsentimental giving.” To your question, this type of charitable giving has impact at its core: Who will do the most good with my charitable dollar?

It’s the type of charity most often practiced by the cool, calculating tech elite, and has the somewhat-affectionate nickname “philanthropy for nerds.”

My problem with Peter’s idea is that it assumes the philanthropists should be concerned with universal efficacy, underpinned by the idea that one cause is inherently better than another. But we know that altruism doesn’t work like that. Philanthropy is rarely that simple.

Listen, I’m just as annoyed with the amount of money that’s given to Lincoln Center instead of programs that feed the hungry.

But just because a philanthropist doesn’t give to the Center, that doesn’t mean that they will give to City Harvest. It most likely means that the $100M will just stay out of the charitable landscape all together.

People give from the heart, to the things that matter most to them, and it’s very hard to convince someone who is passionate about art to be equally passionate about hunger. That just isn’t how passion works. However, there are loads of resources that can show you the organizations are being most effective within an area you’re passionate about, and I’d recommend you start there.

My second piece of advice is to expose yourself to so-called “more effective” areas of impact through volunteerism. You may be naturally passionate about something for a whole host of reasons — you’re personally interested in the subject matter, your parents were big givers in one area, your best friend works tirelessly for a specific cause — but if you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and volunteer somewhere completely different, you may discover something new that resonates with a different part of your core.

Final tip: I like to employ the “10 Year Rule” whenever my heartstrings are tugged by a new nonprofit or I’m inspired by a super sexy charitable project. Will this organization still be around in 10 years, in a form that is better than the one it is currently in? If I’m unsure about that future, I keep my credit card firmly in my wallet. But that’s just me.


How to Give

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