Jan. 9, 2019 11:58 am

4 strategies to up your philanthropy and volunteering game in 2019

How to Give columnist Lansie Sylvia comes through with tips for kickstart a more charitable year. Remember: It's OK to build your giving muscles gradually.


(Photo courtesy of Volunteering Untapped)

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


2018 was a year of apathy for me. I felt so overwhelmed by the state of the world that I retreated into TV and video games. Now I feel ready to dive back in and try to make a difference. I’m resolved to become more philanthropic and giving in 2019. Any tips?

I love this journey for you! My friend once said that resistance is a chorus, and the same thing applies to any philanthropic community — sometimes you’re singing and sometimes you’re taking a breath. You’ve been breathing for a bit now so it’s time for your center-stage moment!

Make an intention …

Building new habits is really hard, so it’s not surprise that most New Year’s Resolutions are kaput by February. For this new habit to stick, it has to be meaningful, not performative or obligatory. You have to be doing this freely and feeling positive benefits from your actions, otherwise it will never stick.

If self-contemplation is your thing, I recommend taking some quiet time to explore your feelings and set an intention for the change you want to make in the world, express gratitude for those who have been working hard to change things already and commit to a new path forward.

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Fix a vision of the positive future in your mind, and explore what paths take us to that future point. Marie Kondo that ish and think about what causes or topics bring your joy, then research which organizations in our area are working on those topics.

… or find your rage

Full disclosure: The above method has never worked for me. I think because I grew up in the nonprofit world and have studied it for so long, I can make a pretty good emotional or intellectual case to work on everything and anything. This can lead to too many committees, board positions, events and a general sense of overwhelming dread … which is right where we started. Instead, I have a way less Zen way to figure out what to focus on.

Read the newspaper and watch some mainstream television, and zero in on what makes you the angriest. Again, everything might make you upset or pull at your heartstrings, but really pay attention to your core. What’s burning you up? Whatever it is, that’s your philanthropic passion, and committing to it will help you stay the course with volunteering, donating and advocating.

I did this exercise a few years ago and it became clear to me that “women and girls” was clearly my thing. The attacks on Planned Parenthood was my breaking point. Since then, I’ve started a Girl Scout Troop, become a monthly donor to Women’s Medical Fund (plus volunteer for their annual gala’s host committee) and have spoken on panels across the city related to women in the creative workplace. It feels great!

Set it and forget it

Once you know what causes speak the most to you, research local organizations to find which one (or two!) could be the best fit for your time and money. It’s always wise to email the organization as ask them what they need (and when they need it). Different orgs have different capacities, meaning not every place is going to have regular volunteering opportunities that you can go to like you go to the gym. By adjusting your participation to fit the needs of the nonprofit, you’ll be able to meaningfully contribute (and not spin your wheels in the interim!).

My two top tips are to set up monthly, recurring donations to a select number of nonprofits and schedule your volunteering time into your calendar, just like you schedule work and family commitments. Both of these methods take a bit of the pressure off of you to “remember” that this is your Year of Giving. Bonus points if you have a shared calendar that other people can see so they can help to hold you accountable.

I also like to use a separate credit card for my philanthropic contributions and set the auto-pay function so that it’s pulling a specific amount of money from my bank account each month. Imagine seeing a credit card balance and feeling good about it! Plus, this makes figuring out your tax deductions way easier at the end of the year!

Build your giving muscles gradually

Like anything else, it takes time to develop a new habit, and trying to stack too much on yourself too soon is a surefire way to get hurt. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that while philanthropy can be super fun — cocktail parties and park clean-ups and bake sales, oh my! — some of it is also really hard.

I’ve had the emotional wind knocked out of me while escorting women to Planned Parenthood, hearing stories of youth abandonment during Couches Don’t Count, and working with teens at The Village of Arts and Humanities. We’ve built up a culture that makes it too easy to dull our sensitivity to the experiences of others, and building that empathy back up takes time.

Start with one monthly donation to one organization plus one volunteering opportunity a month and go from there. You can add a new organization each month, or every other month, or every quarter, or you can stick to the one and faithfully contribute your time and talent a dozen times this year. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else just yet — do what feels right to you and let your experience be your guide.

I’m rooting for you! 🙂


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