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Americans and charities: When hearts and wallets don't match

By , - Last modified: December 19, 2017 at 11:42 AM
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This is a story about two recent surveys. In one, conducted by the World Giving Index and published by the Charities Aid Foundation, Americans were found to be among the most charitable people in the world.

So how does that square with another survey, conducted in 2016 by RBC Wealth Management, which found most Americans say donating to charity is important to them, yet only one in four actually contributes consistently in a given year?

There may be quite a few answers to that question, philanthropy experts say.

For starters, giving often depends on the time of the year, says Kris Putnam-Walkerly, a philanthropy adviser and owner of Putnam Consulting Group in Westlake, Ohio.

“Most people give at the end of the year when charitable donation requests tend to come in more,” she says.  

In her business, Putnam-Walkerly has helped over 60 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over $350 million in grants and gifts.

Individuals, she says, may also be overwhelmed by the volume of requests that come through the mail or by phone, or through friends and family members asking for funds. It’s hard to determine which causes are the most meaningful. Individuals may also be wary of not knowing exactly where their money goes.

“You want to make sure funds are going to the causes you choose, and having the impact you want it to have – making sure the benefits of your contribution are being used for its intended cause,” she says.

Online resources such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide financial information about a charity, including its rating, ranking and how money is used. Putnam-Walkerly recommends individuals check these sites and each organizations’ individual websites to see how the organization uses its funds. Most states also regulate charities and require them to be registered through their Secretary of State’s office.

Putnam-Walkerly warns that although it is smart to learn how a charity uses its funds, you shouldn’t put too much focus on an organization’s overhead costs. Overhead, she says, is not a bad word, as it costs money and resources to run an organization and effectively help others.

‘Time, talent or treasure’

For Melanie Ulle, a Denver-based philanthropy adviser, charitable donations don’t always necessarily mean monetary donations.

“We limit ourselves by defining charitable giving solely as a monetary contribution,” she says. She points out that even if Americans aren’t sending a money directly to an organization, many donate their time by volunteering, or choose to buy products where portions of the proceeds go to an intended charity.

Putnam-Walkerly calls this “time, talent or treasure.” Individuals can donate their time through volunteer hours at their favorite charity; they can donate their talent – like helping an organization with bookkeeping if you’re an accountant; or they can donate their treasure, or monetary funds.  

The two advisers agree you don’t have to be a high-net individual to make an impact with an organization. Instead, they say, focus on what organizations or causes are the most meaningful and donate time and money there.

“For my husband and me – who are not high-net individuals – we help raise $40,000 a year through a pub crawl each year and we give 100 percent of those dollars directly to organizations that help underserved families and children,” Ulle says.

The advisers’ No. 1 advice for either an individual or an organization is to have a more focused plan of action.

“I am actually convincing my clients to give less, and instead be more focused in their approach. I encourage them to make donating a part of their spending and investment habits,” Ulle says.

The current tax code makes donating an incentive for individuals and companies. For individuals who itemize on their tax returns, charitable contributions of money or property made to qualified organizations can be deducted. The Internal Revenue Service allows individuals to deduct up to 50 percent of adjusted gross income.

Those incentives could be at stake if current proposals to reform the U.S. tax code are implemented, which could, in turn, create a negative impact on Americans’ giving habits, experts say.

In the meantime, Putnam-Walkerly suggests that individuals make a charitable plan of action at the beginning of each year. Now, she says, is a perfect time to identify what causes are the most meaningful, research them and then make a plan.

“Take time early in the year to figure out what issues are meaningful to you. Make time in your year to learn about those issues – go to events, volunteer, do research – then make a plan of to set aside funds in order to make donations throughout the year. You can have donations automatically deducted from your paychecks. Develop a game plan for generating those funds,” she says.

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