September 29, 2010 by Leah
I made the mistake of wearing my favorite holey old shirt to Mother’s Market today. It wasn’t a mistake because I looked disheveled (I was wearing a cardigan so the holes weren’t readily apparent), but because it has a picture of Gandhi right on my chest. Apparently this is an open invitation to those winning young people who stand outside natural food stores wearing shirts that say “Greenpeace” and “Planned Parenthood.” I usually feel guilty when I go out of my way to avoid these folks, but today one of them spotted me sidling away and yelled “Gandhi! You have to care!” I cringed and kept walking. She told me to have a nice day anyway. (Optimistic young ‘uns. Gah.)
I don’t understand why Greenpeace or Planned Parenthood (these are the biggest culprits in my observation) send these kids to stand empty-handed in parking lots. If there were an observable action to be taken – a petition to sign, an address form to fill out, a donation box – I would be much more likely to stop and talk. The crazy thing? I even donate money to Planned Parenthood. You’d think I’d care enough to stop and chat with these kids, let them know I’m a supporter, and inquire about why they are there, but if a situation involves talking to strangers and no wine, I’m not a fan.
Wait, you say, you’re on a budget. How can you donate to charities? In my opinion, charitable donations are non-negotiable so long as you’re not in bad debt (e.g. credit card or paycheck advance debt, not student loan or mortgage debt). They don’t have to be large, but they have to be meaningful. Pick your causes, pick your organizations, and do your research. Make a game out of it – give up something for a month – or more – and donate what you would have spent to a corresponding charity (soda = childhood obesity initiatives or community gardens; coffee = fair trade or sustainable development organizations; cigarettes = cancer research).
This is something I did learn at home; my parents have always been slightly more open when they discuss charitable giving (although they never name amounts) than when they discuss spending and budgeting (which we never did). As I was growing up, I watched the people who raised me give to health charities, social charities, cultural charities, churches, political parties/candidates, and the kids who turned up on the doorstep selling candy to try to get the football team to the Lower 48.
As a child, I was given my allowance on Sunday mornings so some fraction of it had a decent chance of making it into the collection plate at church. A few years later, I made a promise to myself that was something of a catalyst for all my future giving. As a scared teenager making surreptitious use of the subsidized resources at Planned Parenthood (by “resources” I mostly mean the absolutely fantastic staff), I vowed to donate money to Planned Parenthood as soon as I was in a position to be able to do so. It took ten years, but I kept my promise to myself and Planned Parenthood International has a little bit more money every year than it would have had otherwise. (Theoretically, I like to keep my donations local, but when donating money on the website PPI suggests making an undesignated donation, e.g. one the organization can use where, when, and how it sees fit. As a former nonprofit employee, trust me, undesignated gifts are the absolute best. Gifts with strings are generally appreciated, too, but they can get out of hand very quickly, and most non-profits now have clauses in their gift acceptance policies or bylaws allowing them to decide what they will and won’t take.)
This year, I haven’t donated as much as I had been previously due to the total tumult our lives were in for a while. (Although the monetary value of the household goods we donated during our apartment merge and move was probably quite high, come to think of it.) Also, I was a little hesitant when initially broaching the subject with Aaron, who turned out not to be an active giver but was completely amenable to the idea. Our first foray into giving as a couple was an Angel Tree project where we picked out gifts for homeless kids in the Anchorage School District last Christmastime. We had lots of fun with that. We’ve also been tossing around ideas about which organizations to give annual donations to this year. I suggested choosing four, since I was usually giving to two a year (on top of any I felt obligated to give to like the one I worked for) and there are now twice as many of us. Aaron likes the idea of giving bigger donations to fewer organizations, though, and rotating throughout the years. I like the fact that we have fun discussing it.
Yes, Aaron and I are privileged to be able to enjoy these discussions. The one of us who is employed is highly educated and has a great job. This doesn’t mean that people in different circumstances give less; it is a well-known fact among fundraising professionals that “low-income working families … are the most generous group in America.”
It is also well known that in times of economic crisis, individual donations are the ones that keep organizations alive. No matter how annoying it is that they send you lots of paper and/or email for years after your donation, or how ridiculous you find the kids in the parking lots, if you believe in anything, you should really put your money where your mouth is.
Americans are better charitable givers than the denizens of any other developed country, and the tax benefits tend to only be taken by higher-income individuals and corporations. (The scope of my giving has never been worth filing itemized deductions, e.g.) Many of our most beloved national institutions are non-profit organizations. No matter where we end up politically, charitable giving will still be important. If the Tea Party gets everything it hopes for (and I’m being extremely forgiving here) and the government shrinks to where its only purpose is to protect individual rights, we’d better hope that individuals use those rights to continue to give money to charitable causes. If we head towards a more European model of government and mandate our government to take care of people with a more holistic approach, we will still need to give money (and time) to keep our favorite organizations healthy and strong. So, if you’re budgeting like we are, make sure not to cut your charitable giving without giving it a lot of thought. If you’ve never donated money before, now would be a great time to start.