When you write a check to a charity or give online with a credit card, how do you know the organization is putting the money to good use? That’s a question many people are asking--especially those who are in the 33% of Americans who lack faith in charities according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy study.
Measuring return on charitable dollars is becoming a hot topic as our culture’s definition of “philanthropy” continues to expand to include a wide range of social impact activities, including volunteering, serving on boards, purchasing products that support a cause, and caring for overall health and wellness.
So what’s the best approach for families, individuals, and businesses who are evaluating investments in the community? Here are three tips to help you get more out of your charitable giving.
Brush up on best practices
If you enjoy diving into research, you’re in luck! A comprehensive body of literature is available to help you understand factors and techniques for effective charitable giving. What these resources have in common is that they look at the giving from the charity’s perspective and offer you--the donor--information and advice on how and where to give for the highest impact. Some of these resources focus on providing donors objective information about charities; some include rankings or evaluations of charities; and others advise donors on how to be “high impact” or more effective in reaching philanthropic goals.
Check out the 2014 Donor Experience Study for a comprehensive literature review, as well as insights about “impact,” including this one:
. . . the notion of impact itself is a challenge because it is so difficult to measure in the social sector. Few donor-focused philanthropic institutions are addressing “impact” at a donor-by-donor level because the mechanics are so challenging. Furthermore, of the work that is underway, most of it only addresses “impact” at an output level (e.g., “The grant from my donor advised fund allowed a nonprofit to purchase shoes for 100 people.”). Technically, “outputs” are not the same thing as “impact,” from a professional evaluation and measurement standpoint. An impact level statement would look something more like this: “The grant from my donor advised fund allowed a nonprofit to purchase shoes for 100 people, and those shoes prevented those people from catching a communicable disease and extended their lives by an average of 15 years.” For examples of best practices in impact and measurement, see the work of FSG at www.fsg.org.
Focus on your own experience and satisfaction
Regardless of the causes people choose to support, giving to charities will grow if people feel better about their experiences with philanthropy. In other words, if we can find ways for people to like it more, at home and in the workplace, all boats will rise in our social impact culture. That’s why it’s important to factor your own experience and satisfaction into the social impact equation.
Consider these ideas:
- Give to what you know. Most Americans get the greatest joy from giving to causes with which they are personally familiar. This makes it easier to understand how the charity is using your dollars. So, for example, if you’ve had experience with helping foster children, you are likely to understand how the organization is using your donation to support training for foster parents. Or if someone in your family suffers from a disability, you will understand what it means to give money to support an individual to receive an extra six weeks of therapy beyond what insurance will pay. And do not be afraid to ask! Most organizations are happy to share the tangible impact of your donation—whether it is $10, $100, $1,000 or more.
- Give where you are. Many Americans support charitable causes overseas, and that is wonderful. But don’t forget that sometimes the greatest needs are right here at home. Look for opportunities to support local charities who are celebrating year-end giving by offering information about the overall need, the mission they serve to meet that need, and the positive impact of a year-end gift on the lives of others. When you give local, you are in a much better position to have confidence in your gift.
- Give to what you love. Above all, give to the charities you love. Gifts that are aligned with a passion and your own love of humanity carry the most energy and ultimately make the most difference. The bottom line is that giving should feel good. Certainly understanding how a charity is using the money is a part of that. But don’t let that get in the way of doing good and enjoying every minute of it.
Add up the good you are already doing
Most Americans’ social impact activities reach far beyond writing checks to charities. Contemporary philanthropy embraces the full range of social impact behaviors:
- Caring about health and wellness
- Giving to charities
- Volunteering at a charity
- Serving on a charity’s board of directors
- Purchasing products that support a cause
- Recycling and respecting a sustainable environment
- Donating items of food and clothing
- Marketing a favorite charity
- Sharing with family and friends in need
- Celebrating at community events
Take a moment to reflect on all the good you are already doing.
Next, think about the social impact activities going on in your workplace. See which features sound familiar as you skim this sample summary of a corporate citizenship program:
A recycling bin next to every desk. A rain garden on the roof. A scholarship fund for fellow employees who need help. A program to encourage time off for volunteering. Disaster relief funds to help employees make donations to tornado victims. Organized clothing drives and canned food drives. A corporate foundation. A donor-advised fund for every employee. The gift of a giving card to each employee on a birthday or anniversary of employment. Annual donations by the company to a few favorite charities. Purchasing tables at charity events. A matching gifts program. Lights that turn off automatically. Credit to employees for service on nonprofit boards of directors. A special place in the break room to post cookie order forms and sell fitness bracelets and collect pop tabs and display a list of all of the charities that the employees collectively support and the impressive tally of total donations. Employee participation in the grant making decisions of the company’s foundation. A program where the company pays half of the cost of season tickets to support employee attendance at local performing arts productions.
Indeed, it's important to consider the "doing good" opportunities you experience with your employer and colleagues. As work, life, community, and wellness converge in our society, social impact has become an important part of our personal and professional success.
The net-net here is that no matter what causes you support, you can make a difference in the community you love and feel good about it, too. In fact, your social impact footprint is probably already bigger than you think. And that’s measurement worth celebrating.