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Stott: Charitable giving not always simple

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

The holidays are approaching and a whirlwind of outreach to potential charitable donors is on its way.

I don’t make a lot of money. My graduate school program limits the number of hours students should work. We are supposed to focus on gaining relevant workforce experience while doing well in classes instead of trying to make as much money as possible.

Although my limited income and busy grad school schedule make charitable activities difficult, I do try my best to give when I can.

Giving to charity, although it seems fairly straightforward, can be a strategic activity.

Some of my graduate school classes are devoted to the management of nonprofit organizations. These classes address the ways managers should solicit money and utilize funding. It is fascinating to learn about the strategy behind organizations that make money by asking for it.

What then becomes more interesting is the decision, as a donor, on how to allocate my limited amount of money. Should I reward effective campaigns? Should I split my money between many organizations, or give all I can to one of them? Is there a way I can give without parting with my hard-earned money?

I am pretty new to giving, but I already have developed some habits.  

For instance, I like to give to organizations that I can interact with. An organization with a Facebook page or a Twitter feed lets me see what the charity is doing (and how it is doing). I like when I see charities addressing specific causes. Specificity is an important way to show exactly how money is being used.

I tend to gravitate toward nonprofits protecting basic needs rather than promoting new ideas. Other people are looking for their money to be used to advance a cause or develop something new.

Another consideration is the effectiveness of the organization itself. I learned in class that online resources such as Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and GuideStar (guidestar.org) are devoted to indicating how effectively charities use donated money and report activities. For example, you can use these sites to learn how much money really goes toward the cause and how much is consumed by administrative and overhead costs.

It is important for all donors, no matter how much they give or which organizations they give to, to determine whether a charity meets their standards. Some people don’t like when an organization uses a lot of money for promotion or administrative activities. Other people see this as a necessary part of the organization.

I also have learned in class that, as the campaigns all claim, small donations really do help. These organizations want whatever you can give, whether it’s a couple of bucks or a few thousand dollars. Small donations can accumulate into significant portions of funding. This fact convinced me that my donations could have a real positive effect on a good organization, no matter how small the amount I can give. 

• • •

I received some feedback from my column last week addressing voters who abstain because of indecision. A letter writer, Carl Kieffer, offered the prudent reminder that voters can pick and choose which races to vote for on the ballot, so even if they don’t want to vote in some races, they should go to the polls to vote for others (local races are especially interesting this election cycle).

Also, I’m worried that some readers might have interpreted my position as the lazy choice for someone who doesn’t want to spend time educating herself about the candidates. That isn’t true. I really want to choose a presidential candidate. Being able to vote is a really great privilege that I am definitely thankful to have.

Sometimes, though, when given the choice between two unattractive options, it is more appealing to choose neither. Voters for all candidates are justified, as are those who decide not to vote.

That is why we have a choice.

• Lauren Stott is a Maple Park native and a graduate student at Northern Illinois University in the master of public administration program. She can be reached at lauren_stott@yahoo.com.

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