By far the easiest gift, from the perspective of mental time associated with decision making, is to give to your religious organization. They ask you for money regularly, and presumably you are invested in their cause if you are a member of their congregation. Sweet! Depending upon your church, money that you give may be used to support the property owned by the church, the salaries of your pastors, soup kitchens, food banks and other homeless services, religious schools attached to your congregation, gifts to needy members of your congregation, religious outreach and general overhead associated with running the church. These all noble causes.
But what if you don’t have a church? Or what if you want your money to be used directly by those who have the greatest need? In that case you should consider alternative causes (perhaps in addition to your religious giving).
The second largest category, education, can overlap with both religious giving and human services. Given that two of the top four volunteering activities are related to religion and education (“fundraising or selling items to raise money” and “tutoring or teaching”) this is obviously a big deal to most Americans. (You can quibble with my association of the first activity and education… but in my experience selling items to raise money is mostly about bake sales, wrapping paper sales, candy bar sales, and other activities that are frequently organized by schools and churches. Also, people who are fundraising through word of mouth, mail requests, etc. for the other big charitable categories don’t usually count their time as a volunteer activity.)
That said, there are many ways to give to education that extend beyond your child’s school or your alma mater (which are the default, low mental energy choices). If this is an area that you value (and by all means, it’s a great one!) then I would encourage you to think broadly about the impact of the gift you can make. If you are interested in local giving, here are some ideas of ways you can support educational organizations:
- Early childhood education
- Preschool programs
- After school care
- Before school care
- K-12 Education
- STEM programs
- Outdoor education
- Safety / Situational Awareness
- Scholarship funds
- Professional affiliate groups
- Sororities / Fraternities
- Endowment / general funds
NOTE: In general, I’m in favor of giving to organizations that support a specific purpose and are able to use your money well. I bring this up here because although I am the Altruistic Dragon, and I am all about building my own Dragon Hoard, I am less inclined to give my money to non-profits that are going to hoard it themselves. According to Wikipedia, there are five university endowments that were larger than $20 billion in 2015. You are free to make your own choices, of course, but in my opinion, contributing to these organizations is a poor way to effect change in our communities or our own lives. I want to see my money in action!
Educational giving can also be highly political. But it doesn’t have to be. There is certainly disagreement about how best to serve our youth in this country, but there is little disagreement that having an educated, healthy, employable group of youngsters is a desirable outcome!
In line with this, many individuals are motivated to give to educational non-profits because of challenges they faced themselves or opportunities that they were offered that they want to see repeated in future generations. These are noble reasons! And these types of reasons are the fundamental, underlying basis for forming value opinions and choosing a cause. These are the things that give you contentment when you reflect upon your life choices. Knowing that you are helping 300 kids have access to pre-school, for example, or that you are providing a scholarship to a future expert in your field, is a far more powerful influence on your life than toiling away selling widgets to fund a trip to the zoo that your kid has been to 20 times. (Not that I’m against zoos – I’m not!) Priorities! Values! That’s what it’s about!