Ask the Expert: Smart giving -- for the holiday season, the rest of the year and a lifetime

At the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, we think about charitable giving, generosity, and fundraising, and all year. But this time of year -- from #GivingTuesday to the Salvation Army's red kettles and beyond -- is peak season for gift-giving.

Adding in the holiday spirit with our desire to help others, charitable giving is more visible in our culture right now than at other times of the year. At our school, however, we emphasize that giving happens year-round, as nonprofits need our gifts of time, talent and treasure to deliver their programs throughout the year, not just during the holidays or for a year-end wrap-up.

As you make your charitable giving decisions, here are some ideas to guide your giving.

Sarah K. NathanView print quality image
Sarah K. Nathan, associate director of The Fund Raising School at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Choosing your causes

Nonprofit organizations address a wide range of social problems and provide numerous public goods. Because there is no shortage of worthy causes, you need a way to make decisions about what is most important to you.

First, think about organizations that you already know -- ones that you are involved with as a volunteer or you have attended their special event.

Consider the organizations you have benefited from: as a "club kid" at the local Boys and Girls Club, a camper at the Y's summer camp, a ticket subscriber at the community theater, a program in your faith community or as an alum of an institution.

Giving to organizations that you already know and have seen or experienced their impact is a great place to start.

Do your homework

If an organization comes to you that you aren't familiar with, you may need to do a little homework before making a gift.

First, consider the person who is asking. Is it someone you know and trust? Has that person been involved with the organization in some way? If you don't know who the asker is, it might be easier to say no, or you might need to do some homework.

An easy place to start your investigation is the organization's website. Are the staff and board listed? Is financial information made easily available? Is there data about the organization's impact? Is there an annual report?

Answers to these questions can help you determine if the organization is legitimate and deserving. GuideStar is another great online resource that collects organizations' data and tax returns in a donor-friendly platform. If the organization isn't on GuideStar, it's probably not reputable.

Unfortunately, charitable giving is not as easy as going to Amazon, reading three customer reviews and clicking one button. Giving requires us to discern how we can give in a way that aligns with our values and consider how we can have the greatest impact with the resources we have to give.

Don't forget the other 11 months

As I mentioned earlier, nonprofit organizations have needs throughout the year, not just in December. For the sustainability of nonprofit organization, it is more important for donors to give every other month of the year than to wait and do all of their giving in December.

Many nonprofits have a monthly or quarterly giving program in which you can set your donation annually -- just don't forget to update the organization when you get a new debit card! The system not only helps you establish the habit of giving, but you'll probably end up giving more over the course of the year than you would if you waited to do all of your giving in December.

Match your values

When giving, think first about the communities where you live.

What do you love about your community that you want to preserve? How can your philanthropy make the community better or address a particular social need?

Is it your public library and the awesome things it's doing to promote lifelong learning? Is it the school-based pantry that sends kids home with food for the weekend? If you belong to a faith community, learn more about and begin to volunteer with its outreach ministry. Do you care about the environment and your community being green and beautiful? Maybe you want to support organizations that are planting trees or doing a public arts program.

I also recommend learning more about the community foundation that serves the area where you live. Community foundations are unique organizations that care for donor funds and redistribute those funds to local agencies through grantmaking.

If you are unsure of which organizations are most deserving, give to your community foundation, because it has its finger on the pulse of the greatest needs in the community and also does a lot of quality-of-life-related grantmaking.

A final thought is a more reflective and a philosophical exercise: thinking about what you want your legacy to be. How can your giving be an expression of your values and your vision for a better future?

Elevate your giving in a way that makes it a lifetime journey -- not something that you only do during the holidays -- and includes your children and grandchildren. May you experience the joy of giving this season and throughout the year!

Sarah K. Nathan is associate director of The Fund Raising School at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.