How do you decide where and how much to donate?
November 25, 2019 7:24 AM   Subscribe

How do you decide how much of your time and income to give away, and how to allocate it, broadly speaking? How much to local non-profits versus national versus international? How much to political campaigns? To friends and family that are struggling? And how to balance against long term financial goals like a child's college fund or buying property one day?

I give away about 10% of the gross income, plus occasional large loans or gifts to family. And I know that pretty high, but I could afford more. I see GoFundMes for refugees or simply people with chronic health problems, and I want to help. But I need to put a limit somewhere. I don't want to become Doug Forcett.

How you make these sort of decisions about what you can afford to give away, and what categories of recipients support?
posted by serathen to Work & Money (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, and I am aware of the effective altruism movement, but I don't think I want to go completely that way for a variety of reasons.
posted by serathen at 7:26 AM on November 25, 2019

This might be a little odd to suggest since you don't mention parenting (don't know if that's at all relevant to you), but I really like the book "The Opposite of Spoiled." It's about raising children and talking with them about money/wealth, but there's a bunch in there about outlining your budget and thinking about how much to contribute to charity. It could help you to think through some of these things.

Sounds like you have a great handle on budgeting (if you can already donate 10% and could do more), so thumbs up on that! And I think it's great that you're trying to be mindful about how you distribute your giving -- to be honest, for myself the system is a little ad-hoc:

1. I have a few recurring donations to organizations that matter a lot to me and that I want to sustain in an ongoing way (to help insulate them against vagaries of funding). I've determined these amounts to be reasonable for me pretty much indefinitely, barring any huge financial setbacks.
2. We have some money (low 3-figures) that is an annual gift from relatives, expressly meant for charity. We give that as a single lump sum, but the recipient organization (must be a 501(3)c) changes a bit year-to-year based on some nebulous factors such as the political climate, or an issue that might have affected us personally that year. These tend to be more local than the organizations in #1.
3. For helping out relatives, that comes up rarely enough and in low enough dollar values that I can pretty much always manage a loan, if not an outright gift. YMMV if your family tends to have more longstanding financial strain or if you have more people asking for help.
4. I don't really follow GoFundMe because the need is overwhelming and really there are so many people one could help....but I suppose one could carve out a category for this under #1, like a recurring budget amount per month or something. I remember reading years ago about a person who put $1 cash in her pocket every day and would give this to the first panhandler she saw, no questions asked. Then that was it for the day. You could think about this for GoFundMe, like "I'll set aside $X per month and will donate that to the first fund that really speaks to me, and after that it's gone for this month." Alternatively, you could try to think of "themes" or "buckets" that matter to you, like refugees or whatever else and divide those in a way that feels good to you.

I think it's important to recognize that our personal donations will never fully offset the systemic injustices and inequalities that are operating, so try not to get too caught up in the perfect scheme for this. We are all doing our best and your donations will be meaningful wherever they are directed.
posted by Bebo at 7:49 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

we set an amount for the year that is significant but doesn't meaningfully infringe on our ability to meet our goals, and divide it up between causes that we've identified during the year and of which we keep a running list. You are right that struggling family ought to be part of the list, but up til now we haven't really considered those together, family being a different, less optional kind of priority.

Generally the largest amounts are for causes that we can meaningfully affect and improve, which often means the most local or most specific ones. I no longer give to any funds that then turn around and give to others. (No judgment on you if you do that, of course.) Little amounts like $10 to WWF or the humane society as a courtesy for the address labels are on the list but pretty automatic.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:51 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you have more you could give, how about socking into long-term savings and letting it accumulate some significant interest. Over time you could build a sum that could be really helpful as a bequest or one-time gift to one or more charities.
posted by Miko at 7:52 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

Consider how much you actually need to live or feel "safe." Go back from there and give away the difference between that and your gross income.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:55 AM on November 25, 2019

I am semi-retired and things are tight, but I set aside money for things I consider effective, where my small donations can spur others to donate.

Examples: Because of the current climate, most of my contributions are to political organizations of one sort or another (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, etc.) or to candidates for public office, especially those who are running against particularly pesetilential people. I have a small recurring monthly ActBlue donation to my preferred Presidential candidate. I only rarely donate to GoFundMe-type things unless I actually know the person involved or unless it contributes to effective action (legal funds for public servants, for example) because I think crowd-funding medical care and antipoverty relief contributes to the dismantling of our social safety net.

I also keep a handful of dollars in my pocket to give to people on the street (as mentioned further up), but that's mostly so I don't have to justify to myself why I won't give (that way lies blaming the victim).

I just got a friend to paint a room in my house, and despite her protestations I paid her the going Task Rabbit rate instead of the ridiculously small amount she wanted to charge us. I consider that a contribution to the world. If I can't barter for what I need, I should pay for it.
posted by Peach at 8:11 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have a set of charities I donate a set amount to every year - half local and half national, all focusing on various issues I care about, I cycle through and donate to a different one each month. I also have a couple of people who I provide significant financial support to, a set amount per month. Beyond that, I have a certain amount budgeted monthly for spur-of-the-moment stuff like GoFundMes, so I can help where I see a need during the month but then when that's run out, I'm tapped out until the next month.

Large one-off gifts to family or friends in need live in a different category in my head, which isn't charity, it's just "person I care about is in need, and if I can help I will," but that's a separate calculation based on my savings account, not what I have or haven't already given to charity.

All of that's just how I do it and your specifics will be different, so my real advice is just to make as much of this set-it-and-forget-it as you can and re-evaluate it periodically - maybe at the new year or when you get a raise.
posted by Stacey at 8:34 AM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

On how much to give:

In The Life You Can Save, Peter Singer offers a scale he recommends by income level, starting at 1% net income. He is particularly focused on how the poor give much more of their income than the rich, and how people forget to increase their giving as their incomes rise.

Another resource I like broadly for questions like this are economic justice sliding scale maps.
posted by veery at 9:15 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

I made a decision almost 20 years ago that I wouldn't donate money to any organization where I wasn't also donating my time. I have made a couple small exceptions over the years, but have largely held myself to it. It has simplified my giving decisions tremendously, and also made me happier about my financial donations, as I was very comfortable with where that money was going and how it would be used.

Regardless of if you adopt this policy or not, I strongly encourage you to create some sort of giving philosophy to guide your charitable work.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:18 AM on November 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

(The Peter Singer calculator is just for how much he thinks you should give to the extreme poor.)

I have monthly donations set up for organizations I support (international to local), and give annual contributions to a few others. I wish I chose organizations in a more methodical way, but there are simply too many good causes. I find the causes I am able to volunteer for don't line up with where I'd like to send my money. My state gives a tax credit for up to $50 of campaign contributions, so that's what I give.

Sadly, my charitable giving is in conflict with saving up a down payment by the time I'd be ready to purchase a house; the rest of my budget is pretty lean. I'm still figuring out what to do about that. Second job or changing fields to increase income are options on the table, as is reducing contributions for a while. I'm single and conscious of needing some financial cushion should I be injured / laid off / whatever.
posted by momus_window at 9:29 AM on November 25, 2019

My partner and I have no kids and no other relatives who seem likely to need help; that leaves us freer to spend on charity. Our long-term yearly commitment is to a local scholarship foundation that we have a personal connection with. I really enjoy supporting this one group, following it over the years and seeing results. We do sometimes pick up other recipients. Hurricane Maria prompted giving to groups helping Puerto Rico; there too we have a personal connection in some family members who are Puerto Rican. Below that level, everything is in the moment and mostly very small.

My partner has also been giving money to a friend's family who have been in trouble; like Stacey, I don't consider that part of the charity pie. I would be sort of wary of doing this myself but my partner is able to do it gracefully. Interestingly in light of one of the comments above, my partner is from a poor family and gives much more generously than I do, both to charity and just because.
posted by BibiRose at 9:54 AM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

I give 10% to charity. I have rough guidelines which I revisit each year between:

- Giving to global extreme poor (because I believe the effective altruists and Peter Singer)
- Giving to climate charities (because I want to feel like I am Doing Something)
- Giving to local charities

I also try to give a small amount to charities that friends ask me to donate to: Anything from a school fundraiser to a sick friend-of-a-friend on social media to those facebook birthday-charity things.
posted by ManInSuit at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2019

The only gofundme I've ever donated to was a fellow medical wife whose husband died in the last year of his medical residency. I knew her personally; they had two kids; she was working part-time; this was very unexpected for them, and I didn't want her to worry about keeping her kids in their current school, or paying the mortgage, or things like that - I wanted to help her focus on grieving and her kids.

Similarly, I take meals to people who have unexpected things happen (accidents, etc), but not who have planned things happen (children, planned surgery, etc).

Annually, we donate to a couple places in large amounts. I think we figured out that I'm donating 5-10% of my "working" time (as in, I am happily unemployed, but I volunteer every week, and we figured out that as a percentage of a 40-hour week), and we donate roughly that same percentage of income to charity. It tends to be 2-3 places each year, and sometimes they change, but we have broad categories that are important to us, and where we think our donations matter.

For instance, my debate community lost a student to suicide a few years ago, and we donate in his name to a facility that did their best to help him, that he thought was helpful, and that he wanted to donate to.

We donate to whoever our local animal shelter is - and that changes when we move.

We prioritize local over national or international. Our state also offers some weird donation tax credits, so sometimes we use them to decide - if we can donate more money, and then get extra deductions for it, great.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:08 AM on November 25, 2019

For deciding how much to give, I tie my giving to my spending, rather than to my income, and I basically consider my "spending" to be my post-tax income minus long-term savings (simpler than actually totalling up how much I spend). I shoot for 10% of my annual spending. I plan to continue doing this during retirement, when I'm living off the savings I'm accumulating now. I don't have any kids and don't believe in inherited wealth regardless, so any savings I may have left when I die that will also go to charity. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about this because I totally could afford to give more *now*, though then I would have to work longer and retire later, but maybe I *should* work longer and earn more money so that I can give that away? But I don't worry about this too much.

I'm not super-systematic about what causes I give to; I have regular monthly donations set up to local social-justice and political-ish orgs and the ACLU, plus I put money in a special "for charity" account every month so that if something comes up that moves me I can make a reasonably substantial (at least to me) donation to a charity or political candidate or (very occasionally) GoFundMe or similar. I don't give to organizations that solicit donations on the street.
posted by mskyle at 10:41 AM on November 25, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have a list of about 30 organizations I give money to yearly. It consists mostly of places and things I use. Things like local radio/TV (PBS, Classical, Jazz, NPR etc.). Journalism places International, National and Local. Websites I use regularly like Wikipedia. The Local Library foundation. I have to have some connection with the organizations for me to donate regularly. I also donate locally to the Poverty related organizations and to the Global Poor (as I feel my money makes the most impact this way. A dollar goes a long way in India). I use Charity Navigator to check up on where I donate my money. It started with a much smaller list and has grown steadily over the years.

I supplement this with one time donations for disasters. Like the flood in Kerala etc. But this is not 'budgeted'.
posted by indianbadger1 at 3:39 PM on November 25, 2019

I would argue that you should give slightly past what you're comfortable with. It's meant to be a sacrifice. You will always be able to come up with a competing "long term goal."

There are so many good options for giving that you can hardly go wrong following your heart in choosing recipients. I would suggest trying to think of one or two charities in your cultural blind spots, though, especially if you happen to be white or male, because we are so ferociously conditioned to think of certain people, and certain people only, as worthy of care or support, and so choosing to support a charity or organization run by marginalized people for marginalized people can be a good way of counteracting that.
posted by praemunire at 4:07 PM on November 25, 2019

> It's meant to be a sacrifice.

Why, though? I've wondered the same thing as the Asker. If you're not part of an organized religion that already has a structure, it's hard to say what the amount should be.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:36 PM on November 25, 2019

Why, though?

If your commitment to making a better world extends only so far as it's essentially painless for you, well, it's still better than nothing,'s not very much.
posted by praemunire at 7:10 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of what praemunire says, here is C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc. is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.
posted by serathen at 7:26 PM on November 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

If your commitment to making a better world extends only so far as it's essentially painless for you, well, it's still better than nothing,'s not very much.

Functionally, not, though. The dollars don't care at all what they meant to the person who gave them away. I agree that ideas about "should" are generally part of ethical or religious frameworks. They are meaningless if you don't buy into those frameworks (even if they are very meaningful for those who do). There's a lot that could be said about this, but insisting that an amount be painful to give is looking for some moral outcome on the giver, and not really concerned with the ultimate benefit of the funds for the recipient. It's objectively better for the recipients if someone with a lot of money gives a small percentage of it that they won't miss than for someone with only a little money to give a percentage that hurts them.
posted by Miko at 5:17 AM on November 26, 2019 [3 favorites]

My Dad espoused CS Lewis's point of view to some extent. He was a huge giver who supported an additional family for years, helping the kids through college and graduate school. I remember him telling us we would be getting fewer gifts for the holidays because we were doing this. I thought it was very cool at the time and still think that was a good example. But he was definitely in a position to be giving back by then and realistically was never going to have to worry about health care and things like that. I think in the US today, most of us with responsibilities don't have the luxury to give until it hurts, so to speak. (It didn't hurt my dad; it was a pleasure for him. He could be a real jerk but I have fond memories of the enthusiastic tone with which he said "Yes!" whenever one of his charities called.) But he was a partner in a big law firm. Lewis was a professor, probably with tenure?

So, yeah, I wish we could all engage in extreme giving but for a lot of us that's not really safe these days.
posted by BibiRose at 7:57 AM on November 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

> How do you decide how much of your time and income to give away

As far as time goes: I work towards the President's Volunteer Service Award pins every year. This isn't based on any rubric other than that I like rewards and structure.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:44 PM on November 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

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