Intro to Choosing a Cause

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to giving is finding a cause that is important to you (See number 6 in Why Don’t we Give?). And it’s not just about finding any random non-profit – it’s about finding one that will use your money or time wisely in a way that YOU feel is important. I’ll write more about strategies to maximize your giving in another post. In this one I will focus on the primary causes you can donate to and the basic reasons you want to create a plan to guide your giving (hint – intentional giving is the foundation of philanthropy and tax planning!)

In general, you can give to organizations that support:

  1. Religion
  2. Education
  3. Human services
  4. Medical / Health
  5. Overseas aid
  6. Arts
  7. Military
  8. Animals
  9. Disaster relief
  10. Environmental
  11. Political causes

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, in 2015 32% of all charitable donations went to religious organizations, making that category far and away the biggest receiver of funds. A further 15% was given to education, 12% to human services, 11% to “grantmaking foundations” and 8% to health. For the purposes of this article, I will ignore grantmaking foundations as a category… those dollars can be spent in any number of ways and those words are certainly not going to get your heart racing (with joy)!

Interestingly, the National Philanthropic Trust also notes that in 2015 there were more than 1.5 million registered tax-exempt charities… and more than 300,000 religious congregations. Holy cats!

(I actually have a lot of opinions on the “vanity non-profits” which contribute to that crazy number… but more on that later!)

So, on the one hand, that’s great: You have 1.5 million options. On the other hand, you only have 24 hours in the day and I’m guessing that you don’t want to spend all of them figuring out which organization is the best!

In the last 15 years, sites such as Charity Navigator have sprung up to help you narrow your options. There are pros and cons to using these sites for your final decision making (more on this in the future) but they can be very useful in weeding out the top contenders. That said, what they cannot do is help you decide what YOU value. They cannot help you determine which CAUSE to give to. They can only tell you if an organization is frittering away its donations and filing the correct tax returns.

The primary goal in assessing your values is to spend some upfront mental energy (say, once a year) to determine which causes are most important to you, create a plan, and then put it on autopilot. Believe it or not, this will free up a tremendous amount of time and energy in the future. It will help you with your budget. It will massively help you with your taxes. It will help you with your peace of mind. And it will help you combat the constant asks that come your way; you will already know the answer when your sister-in-law asks you to contribute to her ferret leukemia fund (yes?). By now you know that one of my least favorite (and most popular!) methods of giving is “responding to random asks”. Your charitable giving strategy is about YOU and YOUR family. It isn’t about social convenience or expectation.

Reactive giving gives a temporary dopamine boost. Intentional giving gives life satisfaction.

Identifying your values is the first step on the path to philanthropy.

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