A Guide To Charitable Giving While in Debt (Hint: It’s Not Always About Money)

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This is a guest post by Heather Andrews.

Today I come to you with an outrageous idea: giving to others.

“But Heather,” you’re thinking. “I’ve still got like eight years worth of debt to pay off! Why would I give my precious, hard-earned money to someone besides debtors? And for nothing in return! You’re crazy.”

Arguably I am a little crazy—after all, I have worked with non-profit organizations since I was in high school. We’re all here at ReadyForZero because we want financial freedom, so it may not make a lot of sense that I’m here talking about giving… yet.

Perhaps you don’t realize that donating cash is just one form of charitable giving! And even if your budget is jeggings-tight at the moment, it’s good to be equipped with knowledge about charitable giving that could serve you now and in the future.

Shall we begin?

The good news is that plenty of people give to charitable organizations. According to the National Philanthropic Trust, 95% of households give to charity. In 2012, 75% of people ages 20-35 reported giving to charity. Given the challenges young people face with high student loan debt and unemployment, I’d say 75% is a pretty good number.

Regardless of your age though, it’s worth making charitable giving a regular part of your life.

Why Should I Give?

Charitable giving helps tackle the world’s problems. Consider Bill and Melinda Gates, formerly of tech giant Microsoft. They see inequity in the world, and through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they have granted millions of dollars to projects targeting those inequities. One of their goals is to eradicate malaria from the planet, which kills thousands of children each year. Granted you’re not a multi-billionaire (are you?) but organizations can pool the resources of many to make great things happen.

Giving is a way to support something you believe in. Whether that is a particular cause, a promising artist, or a specific project you’d like to see come to light, there are plenty of organizations and projects that would not be possible if it wasn’t for the support of others.

Lifetime memberships may be cost effective. My local library has a “friends of” organization that offers a lifetime membership for only $100. To me, that means I can give one time, for about the cost of a pair of sturdy shoes, and not need to worry about coming up with a yearly donation if I’m unemployed or otherwise financially stressed.

Schwag! If you really believe in your organization, you may want to display your support to others. Many organizations (most notably public broadcasting stations) offer premiums in the form of T-shirts, tote bags, or other gifts when you donate a particular amount of money.

It makes you feel great. Helping others makes you feel good. Recently, I pledged a small amount of money through Detroit Water Project to help a Detroiter pay down their modest bill, for which their water was shut off. After three of us paid our small pledges, the individual had their water service restored! It gave me a great feeling to know I had made a small, but significant difference in a stranger’s everyday life. (And if you are convinced by Broadway musicals rather than personal anecdotes, check out “The Money Song” from Avenue Q.)

Ways to Give

Volunteer. ReadyForZero readers, take note—your time can be at least as valuable as your money! A friend of mine has used her extra time and many skills to support three local non-profits over the last several years. Her efforts also led to Glass4Good, a consortium of people working to benefit society through Google Glass.

As a non-profit veteran, I can attest to the huge difference volunteers can make to an organization’s limited resources. Overworked staff often don’t have the time to do everything that needs done in a day, especially when a big event is coming up or has just finished. A hard-working, reliable volunteer can be worth their weight in gold. Alternately, professionals may offer to do pro-bono work for an organization that could benefit from their services.

Donate goods. Animal shelters always need blankets, food, toys, and treats. Women’s shelters always need toiletries and clothes. If you’re interested in an organization, go to their website and look for a wish list. Perhaps the local art studio is looking for a scanner and yours has been collecting dust for the last few years…there’s plenty of opportunity here for charitable giving without spending a dime.

Cash. This is the one everyone’s mind jumps to when charitable giving is mentioned, so I probably don’t have to explain the basic concept. One thing that you may not know is that cash donations can be used for a general donation or membership funds, but you can also earmark a cash donation to go wholly toward a specific fund or project. This means the money can only be used for that project and not for general operating expenses.

Planned giving/investments. We all die someday—who will get your 401k? Investments usually have a primary/secondary beneficiary, and your favorite non-profit can likely be one. Plenty of people also write non-profit organizations into their will.

Organize a fundraiser. Be creative and give without spending money! Have a birthday party and request that guests bring food for the food bank instead of gifts for you. Organize a Scrabble tournament at your school, workplace, or church to benefit a worthy cause (better yet, check out Scrabble for Cheaters!). If you’re a musician, play a concert and donate a percentage of ticket sales to that special cause—and while guests are listening, pass the hat around as well.

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Who to Give To

If you don’t already have some idea of who you’d like to give to, ask yourself what your areas of interest are (arts? comics? autism research? church?). Think about causes you care deeply about, things you’d like to change in the world, or things you’d like to support/encourage. This could include friends or community members working on projects you find interesting. It could include local, national, or international causes—your money may go further at a local level, but donating to a specific project at a national level may mean helping roll out a bigger change.

Browsing the internet may also be helpful. Crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter or IndieGogo can help you find ideas or a specific project worth backing—there are thousands of projects to browse in a variety of categories. And if you’re researching an organization to give to, the internet can help you target an area of interest, research specific organizations, and help narrow your focus.

One thing is certain: there is so much opportunity out there!

Insider Tips

A few last tips for debt-conscious readers like you (and me):

• Research organizations you’re interested in to get a sense of how their money gets used. Look at their annual report, which is often available on an organization’s website.

• If money is tight, budget for a contribution or find something in your price range. Organizations are grateful for even small contributions—so even if you can’t give a lot, still give!

• Consider rotating yearly donations from year to year, to support a wider variety of causes.

• Budget for specific contributions each year, but plan a little extra for other good causes that may come up. Examples of this may include disaster relief or neighbors who have an accident and the community organizes a fund for lost wages/medical costs.

• Don’t like making a contribution and then being on the mailing list, or other logistical concerns? Reach out to the organization’s development department—it’s their job to ensure a donor’s wishes are met.

There are so many reasons, ways, and opportunities to give! If you’ve never made a charitable contribution, I encourage you to start now, even if it’s by volunteering to stuff envelopes at a local non-profit. Then, build the habit—make giving part of your life. When you have extra time but money is tight, volunteer; or when you’ve paid down some debts but time is tight, consider giving some cash to a good cause. Donors like you are the reason that these organizations will continue to exist and thrive in the future.

HeatherHeather Andrews is paying off a dandy student loan by doing as much media-wrangling as possible. She has logged many years of working for and with non-profits. When she’s not writing or adoring various worthy causes, she is usually hiking with her Australian shepherd or reading about history. Catch up with her at Bookish!

Image Credit: Francesca Guadagnini

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  • JZ

    This is a great read full of helpful, practical suggestions even for those with a jeggings-tight budget! Thanks for the blog, Heather!