As originally published in the Our Towns section of The State Journal-Register. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.
The holiday season is the time of year when many people put the needs of others ahead of their own and when the generosity of those living in our community is on full display. In fact, approximately 30 percent of all charitable giving occurs during the month of December.
Naturally, charitable organizations recognize an uptick in donations and volunteering during this time of year, which means your email and mailbox are probably filling up with solicitations. However, before you write out a check, make a gift online or even sign-up to volunteer, we encourage you to consider a few tips:
- Research the charity or program before considering a gift. Unfortunately, there are individuals who take advantage of our generosity during the holiday season. Websites like guidestar.org can help verify the legitimate tax status of an organization and provide access to IRS provided tax returns and other financial information.
- Know what your gift will support. Legitimate, well-run charities welcome the opportunity to discuss how your gift will help and will gladly provide information on the impact of your gift. If an organization cannot tell you how your gift is being used, then you should feel comfortable saying no.
- Don’t compare organizations based upon administrative expenses alone; consider the type of organization, efficiency in programs, and outcomes of their work. The Better Business Bureau, Guidestar and Charity Navigator (three watchdog organizations) have worked for years to educate the public about the false conception that financial ratios are the sole indicator of nonprofit performance. This is especially important when considering making a gift to different types of nonprofit organizations. Food pantries and food banks tend have very low operating expenses due to high volumes of non-cash donations and fewer staffing needs, whereas an organization providing health or human services to a child will have greater operating expenses due to additional staffing needs, regulatory costs and other expenses incurred because of their services. In both cases, these types of organizations may be operating efficiently, but with very different types of revenue and cost structures.
- Consider support for local programs. At United Way, we believe in the power of community and feel the greatest gift you can make is one that leaves your community a better place to work, live and raise children. When you give local, your gift stays in our community, supports our neighbors, strengthens our economy and creates local jobs. You can find profiles of many, if not most, of our local charities on our volunteer website, Get Connected. Simply visit our website, springfieldunitedway.org and click on volunteer.
- Involve your children by teaching them the importance of community, philanthropy and volunteering. If you work at a business that participated in an adopt-a-family program, let your children or grandchildren help you choose the gifts. Teach them not to judge others, but to seek to understand the challenges others may be facing.
- Don’t stretch your own pocketbook too far in the name of generosity. One of our priorities as an organization is to help individuals obtain and maintain financial stability. Our hope is for families to live within their means, including giving within their means. There are many ways to help a local organization or make a community a better place to live. In fact, you can find many local volunteer opportunities at Get Connected.
Finally, remember the needs of our community extend beyond the end of the year. If you are considering a year-end gift to a local organization, consider the value of establishing a monthly (or per paycheck) gift. Likewise, if you volunteer during the holiday season, ask the organization about long-term volunteer opportunities.
On behalf of our nonprofit community, thank you for your generosity this holiday season.
John Kelker is the president at United Way of Central Illinois. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.