Sometimes we are slow to connect the dots in life. Thankfully, we are sometimes given those “ah ha!” moments, when the path, connecting events and people from long ago to the present, becomes clear to us. Those connections are becoming clearer to me of late.
After excellent examples by my parents and a thirty-year introduction into Development work (raising funds from donors and charitable grants for a non-profit organization), I have learned much about the good, the bad, and the ugly players and policies of institutional development work.
Now I am in a different, albeit related, position. My husband and I are people of modest means, passionately desiring to assist worthy organizations and private individuals with our gifts. A chief driver in wanting to retire our personal debt is the ability to do more of this. The few modest gifts we have been able to make have exponentially increased the number of requests that arrive daily in our mailbox.
Because no one can begin to assist all the worthy organizations seeking funds, we employ some guiding principles, that you may find useful as you ponder similar questions. We make the first cut before opening the envelopes. There are many things we are just not interested in supporting. The second cut comes when we read the remaining requests sent to us.
If we like what they tell us about their focused goal, we then look further before ever giving them a cent. We check out their website or on-line presence. Do we continue to like what we see there? If we do, then we go to a watchdog group, a place where we can research the organization a bit. I tend t turn to these two, but there are many others:
At these sites you can look at their mission statements as well as several years worth of their 990 tax forms and evaluate for yourself how well they are fulfilling their mission. If there are complaints against them or if they have been in danger of losing their charitable status, that information can be found. I like knowing what kinds of salaries they pay. I don’t begrudge anyone a decent salary – but when the head officer is making half a million dollars with a car, house, and other perks – I cut these from our list. I want to know what percentage of money raised goes to administrative costs and what percentage supports their mission. Some organizations are so top-heavy that they are much less effective than smaller, leaner organizations.
Take some time and read reviews and ratings that donors and beneficiaries have written. Don’t overlook the negative ones. More than once I have found the negative things that people said about a charity to be positive to me. (Like reading a book review – if a book is reviled because it is a quaint British mystery, and you love quaint British mysteries – that negative review might be positive in your sight.)
Once you have vetted an organization, continue to check up on them over the years. They may change over time. Their staff, effectiveness, goals and the faithfulness with which they fulfill their mission may all change over the years. Pay attention. Due diligence. This is so important that I’ve created charts to keep track of this information for the two of us.
On a related subject, giving to needy individuals, we have an entirely different Mantra. Here we say: forget vetting – use wild abandon! If there is someone needy, perhaps a homeless vet or a street beggar, we like to give them what we can. My husband and I ignore the questions about how they sank to this place – instead, we like to imitate the Good Samaritan. Stop. Roll down your car window. Reach out your hand and put some money into their hands. If they blow it that is up to them. It isn’t our concern. A gift, when given, is no longer ours. We respect them enough to let them decide how to use it.
There was a night, thirty-four years ago, on a bitterly cold evening in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when my date and I saw a homeless man shivering in the cold and begging for money at the street’s edge. We had no money. We pulled up to him, explained that we had no money, and asked him if he would like a blanket. His face lit up, and he said: “YES PLEASE!” We told him we would be back in thirty minutes with that blanket and we were. He was so grateful. It wasn’t much – but may have made a difference to him. I have never forgotten how he thanked and blessed us.
Tucson is full of homeless people begging for funds – especially in winter when they have migrated here from colder climates. We often are stopped at a light or corner next to such a person. We give money when we can, but we have given parts of our lunch, a box of doughnuts once, whatever happened to be on hand. On Monday of this week, as I headed to work, I pulled off the highway and headed down the exit ramp to the stoplight and there sat a very dirty woman, holding a sign that she was homeless and hungry. She was probably in her mid-thirties. Maybe older. Hard to tell. She was sitting on a filthy backpack holding up her sign asking for help. I hadn’t any money at all in the car. Not even change. But I rolled down the window anyway. I explained that I hadn’t a cent on me, but I told her that I hoped and prayed that her situation would improve very soon. She flashed me the biggest smile and thanked me for my smile, my prayers, and my encouragement. Then she told me to “Have a great day – and may God Bless you!” Just then the light changed. As I was leaving, I noticed what I had missed before. She didn’t have any shoes. Just dirty socks. It was a cold morning. Homeless, hungry, shoeless. It made me so sad that I cried. I used to be called a soft-hearted pork & bean. Guess I still am. Her plight and my inability to help her got to me.
I’ve written before about poverty and debt. My husband and I want to retire the debt that we have not only because it is money owed that we have an obligation to repay, but also because it is preventing us from doing things we want to do. We want to retire that debt and become more prosperous because we have lots of plans to fulfill. They are dreams of ours that we often talk about and refine. We want to be able to be very generous at a time when many organizations are hurting because many people who were once able to give are not able to do so now. There are still many people under-employed who are forced to be more cautious about how they spend their money.
We have often been shown kindness when our own money was tight with a personal loan from a family member or friend, with a gift card for something like a meal out, with an offer to pick up airfare so we could go visit, with an invitation to dinner with friends, with tickets donated to us so that we could attend a charitable gala event. We want to get busy fulfilling our plans toward specific individuals and charitable organizations that need assistance.
What about you? What motivates you to give? How can you position yourself so that you can give more? Who do you know who needs a helping hand? What organization can you help today? Any amount can help.
P.S. check out these two movies: