Twelve Questions to Ask Before Giving Money to Charity
“Give, save, spend.” That’s the formula we tell our children when we teach them how to handle money—and it’s a formula that translates well into our adult lives.
Most of us have spending down pat, and we have at least some idea of how to save, but what about giving?
Charitable giving should always have a place in our personal budgets. The Church even teaches that one of the reasons we work at all is so that we can help the poor (see CCC, 2444)—and no, involuntarily donating our tax dollars does not count as giving to charity!
But what’s the best way to give? Giving sounds simple, but it’s not always easy to know if our charitable dollars are doing what we want them to do. Not all charities are run well, effective, or even honest.
There are several free services that track the efficacy and integrity of specific charities. Before you give, just plug the name of the charity into GreatNonprofits.org, CharityNavigator.org, CharityWatch.org, or Guidestar.org.
Beyond that, what should we ask ourselves before we give? Kiernan O’Connor is a financial planner, and co-founder and director of The Donor Motivation Program of Houston. He has some advice for Catholics who want to give to charity. Ask yourself:
1. What is my personal connection with this organization? We can’t all be Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor with our bare hands. We can, however, make our giving personal and donate to a cause uniquely suited to us. “If you’re naturally passionate about something,” says O’Connor, “that’s where the Holy Spirit wants you to stay [when you give].”
2. Am I reacting emotionally? Just because some charitable campaign tugs at your heartstrings (or makes you feel guilty) doesn’t mean it deserves your money. You’ll feel more satisfied and do more good if you take the time to research any organization that appeals to you before cutting a check. Giving should be “sacrificial, prayerful, and purposeful, not reactive,” counsels O’Connor.
3. Does it feel sacrificial? It should. Any time you sit down to make a family budget, charitable giving should be built in. If you need to cut your expenses, you should cut other things before cutting your charitable giving.
4. Do I think I can donate my way into heaven? Tithing doesn’t automatically equal holiness. “Don’t just give a percent and say your conscience is clear,” warns O’Connor. “You’ll miss an opportunity to grow spiritually.” There is a reason the Church doesn’t simply require all Catholics to give 10 percent. Some people can easily afford to give far more, and some show great courage by giving anything at all. Also, you shouldn’t forget other types of charity: the donation of your time and talents.
5. Do I understand how a charity is run? A successful, efficient charity is managed by people who understand business, and they will probably spend at least 25 percent of their budget on overhead, administrative, and fund-raising expenses (which may legitimately include gala dinners and other events). This is not a sign of corruption or excessive worldliness; it just means that the charity will still be in business next year.
6. Is the charity really about helping people and does it have specific goals? Or is their real goal to help the CEO live lavishly or make the donors feel hip or enlightened? Good charities spend money on advertising, fund-raising, and sustainability, but they also show results. If they paint a rosy picture but can’t show any measurable success, then don’t play their game.
7. Do I have a plan for charitable giving? When donating money, it’s best to concentrate your funds. One big check to a single organization is more useful than five small checks to five organizations. In addition, O’Connor says, “If things are tight, if there’s one organization that depends on you, you’re more likely to be sacrificial.”
8. Do I understand how important small donations can be? Most charities would rather have a small amount from someone who is loyal and involved than a one-time lump sum from someone they’ll never see again. “They don’t care if you’re a small giver,” says O’Connor. “They would rather have someone they can rely on to give consistently every year than someone who’s going to cave into an emotional sales pitch but give zero next year.”
9. Am I supporting evil? Just because the charity’s name says “Catholic” doesn’t mean it is Catholic—and, sadly, just because the local parish supports it doesn’t mean you should support it. Do a thorough Internet search to find out where your money really goes. Even organizations that are ethically sound themselves may fund or partner with more nefarious groups. Ask someone you trust, and if you’re still not sure, go with a local organization whose scope is more limited but safe.
10. Am I being scrupulous or overly controlling? Do your homework, try your best to be prudent, and then leave it up to the Holy Spirit. It’s just money, after all, and the stars won’t fall into the sea if a few of your dollars accidentally trickle down to something that’s not squeaky clean.
11. Am I sure it’s actually a charity? Predators lure in the tenderhearted, especially if children are involved, or right after some natural disaster. If it’s a real charity, it will have tax-exempt status, and its finances and operations will be transparent. The charity should welcome questions from prospective donors.
12. Not all charitable giving is through official charities. Keep an eye open for opportunities to help the people the Holy Spirit puts in your path. Even if you can’t claim it when you file your taxes, your Father in heaven sees when you buy a sandwich for a panhandler or give your old car away rather than selling it when you’re ready to upgrade.
Some worthy charities you may not know:
A top-notch international NGO run by Catholics, serving poor Indian families of every caste and religion, and fully in allegiance with the Church. Donors partner with needy families or communities and help them invest so they can become self-sufficient.
An adoption ministry with many programs to help families fund the very expensive adoption of children with special needs, many of whom are barely surviving substandard care in orphanages.
Deploys vans equipped with sonogram equipment to abortion clinics, where they do not protest, but gently offer to show pregnant women an ultrasound of their babies. Many of these women choose life after seeing the child they are carrying.
Goods of Conscience (founded by Kiernan O’Connor’s brother, Fr. Andrew O’Connor)
Employs Mayan Indian weavers in Guatemala and underemployed sewers in the Bronx to produce a line of chic, upscale clothing that is environmentally sustainable and preserves a traditional form of weaving.
Simply organizes volunteers to commit to sending cards, letters, and the occasional small gift to support and encourage patients going through chemotherapy.
Abby Johnson’s ministry which provides financial, emotional, spiritual and legal support to anyone wishing to leave the abortion industry.
ENOUGH ABOUT CHARITIES — WHAT ABOUT ME?
Thinking about your own financial future? Things have changed. The economy is more volatile, people are living longer, and we can’t rely on employer pensions to provide for us in our old age.
To deal with these vagaries, Kiernan O’Connor recommends three things: be patient, be prudent, and be purposeful.
Be patient. Buy low; and when your stock is low, don’t panic and sell out. “There’s no recovery from that,” says O’Connor. Think of the long term, and wait it out.
Be prudent. Make sure you know the difference between your needs and your wants. Sit down ahead of time, counsels O’Connor, and figure out which things you’ll be able to cut out of your life, if you need to some day. “If you have a plan,” he says, “You’ll be able to deal with uncertainty better.”
Be purposeful. “Don’t just assume everything will work out!” cautions O’Connor. “Just like in your spiritual life, if you just let things happen, you’re not going to get anywhere.” To get your financial house in order, O’Connor recommends following the advice of Phil Lenahan, sometimes called “the Catholic Dave Ramsey.” Lenahan uses scripture and the Catechism as a guide in getting your financial priorities straight. For more information check out Lenahan’s book, 7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free: A Catholic Guide to Managing Your Money (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006).
O’Connor also adds two bits of perennial investment advice: diversify, and buy gold.