While I haven't had billions of dollars to "hug and release" over the past few years, I—like Erica—have felt plenty guilty turning down some great, and even some not-so-great, organizations seeking my limited contributions. With nearly 1.5 million nonprofits in this country, it's no wonder it sometimes feels like you're solicited at every corner.
My view is that the easiest way to say "no" is to know when you'll say "yes." My mom's method worked because the Gates Foundation had a highly articulated plan that helped her know when to say yes and when to say no: If a grant proposal didn't fit into the foundation's grantmaking priorities, she knew it was time to "hug and release." You can do the same thing by making a giving plan and sticking to it.
How? Start by determining a realistic amount for you to give this year. The 89 percent of Americans who donate annually give an average of 3 percent of their income to charity. Depending on your budget, you may be able to give more or less. Don't put your financial solvency at risk in order to give more than you really should, but also don't let yourself off too easy—many of us can give more than we think. If tax savings might tip the scale, you can use Charity Navigator's giving calculator to determine how much your donation will really cost you.
Next, make a list of the issues you care about, and research which organizations are doing the best job at addressing these. While there are many opinions on the right way to "rank" charities, start by using Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, or GuideStar to identify organizations working in those areas (though there are many organizations that don't make it onto these sites, so don't just stop there) and gather information about their activities. GiveWell is a relative newcomer to the field of charity evaluation and is trying to rank based on impact rather than financials (a tall order). While they don't have many organizations evaluated yet, it may be a good place to poke around. When you're choosing which groups to support, remember that small donations cost just as much to process as large donations, so try to focus your giving on just a handful of worthy organizations.
The Network for Good, an online giving site, offers 10 tips on giving wisely. Donating through the site also allows you to keep all your giving records in one place and track whether or not you're living up to your giving goals. Giving online helps the money get to the organization quicker, which is especially helpful in these tough times. If your charity of choice isn't part of the network or you have some fear of PayPal, make sure to keep your donation receipts and set up your own system for tracking your donations—it's nothing an Excel spreadsheet can't handle.
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.
In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.