The Change You Wish to See

Who among us hasn’t wished we could make the world a better place? This time of year, many of us try. In 2003, individual Americans gave away nearly $180 billion. That’s almost five times more than big foundations and corporations gave away last year.

But while Americans give generously, most of us aren’t very smart about giving. Recent scandals at The Red Cross and other high-profile charities have raised public awareness of the potential for misuse of charitable donations, but advice on good giving continues to be scarce, and in the absence of solid information, people lead with their hearts and learn by the seat of their pants.

First piece of advice? Don’t simply send a check to whoever asks. Be strategic. Your contributions are one of the most powerful tools you have for making the world a better place.

Within philanthropy, there are two kinds of giving: Traditional giving helps one person at a time by providing charity for immediate short-term needs. Strategic giving focuses on change and builds for the future. Strategic giving can re-make the world. While support for soup kitchens and other social services are essential, philanthropy has the capacity to do much, much more. In the last few years, strategic giving has lifted millions of America’s poorest workers out of poverty by providing support to anti-poverty groups organizing for higher wages through living wage laws (now in effect in 125 cities/counties) and a higher minimum wage in 14 states. Strategic giving was also responsible for the boost in voter turnout last month. More than 1,000 nonprofit organizations, fueled by charitable donations, registered five million new voters prior to the election and mobilized the largest number of young voters ever to go to the polls.

Strategic giving can transform the lives of millions. So for every soup kitchen you support, consider writing a check where the impact will be broader. Think about a gift to groups that are forging solutions to end homelessness. For every scholarship you support, invest in youth groups that are working to bring college-prep courses into the high school curriculum so that thousands of young people in low-income neighborhoods will have a shot at college.

Once you’ve made your initial choices, do two minutes of research. Go to the Guidestar website which includes thousands of nonprofits in its database. Read the organization’s mission statement. What are they trying to accomplish and does it match your own priorities? How strong is their board of directors? Do they have at least a dozen people with legal, financial and other relevant expertise? Are they getting money from a variety of sources like foundations, corporations and individuals?

In this season of giving, realize the power you wield. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Bill Gates or Mary Quite-Contrary. You have the power to help re-make the world. You can build that world by being a smart, strategic philanthropist. Consider the impact of your gift on the organization you support and the impact of the organization’s work on the world. “Be the change you wish to see,” Gandhi once said. Strategic giving is a way to bring that change into being.

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