The 411 on How to Help Charities – How to Start Donating Money, Time, or Something Else

‘Tis the season to think bigger than yourself — and so I asked Kate to do a 411 for us on helping charities. Whether you’ve got a little or a lot to give, how can you start donating? What do you need to know? What research should you do ahead of time? (Readers, I’d love to hear from you — where do you donate annually, and then around this time of the year? Do you prefer to give to one organization or spread it out? How have you found organizations in the past?) – Kat

Psst: We’ve previously talked about strategic volunteering, how to get on a board, charitable giving for young professionals, and how to deal with pressure to donate money at the office.

Here are some ways to help charities, whether you want to donate money or time or something else:

Find one charity you care about, and give what you can. Helpful resources to find charities that use their donations wisely include Guidestar and Charity Navigator (the two recently partnered to share information) and (the BBB Wise Giving Alliance). If you don’t have much time to research potential recipients of your donations, you can easily use a resource like Charity Navigator’s Charities with Perfect Scores (examples: The Equal Justice Initiative and Help Hope Live) or 10 of the Best Charities Everyone’s Heard Of (examples: Doctors Without Borders, USA and The Rotary Foundation). To claim a charity donation on your taxes, make sure to save the letter or receipt from the organization.

Get involved in a nonprofit organization’s Young Professionals group. Many nonprofits have such groups, which tend to offer one or more of the following: volunteering experiences (such as helping out at a fundraising gala or other special event), educational opportunities (learning about the organization’s mission and activities — through, for example, behind-the-scenes tours), and fundraising events for YPs (such as pub crawls). Bonus: Joining groups like these brings great opportunities for making friends and networking (or, as Kat put it many moons ago, “shopping for boys,” i.e., dating). Kat has previously mentioned the Young Lions (New York Public Library) and the American Museum of Natural History’s Junior Council.

Join a nonprofit board. Yes, this feat is often harder to accomplish as a 20- or 30-something than, say, a 60-something who’s well established in her career and relatively prominent in the community, and has plenty of valuable connections (and, well, perhaps more disposable income). However, some nonprofits reserve board spots (or at least one) for young professionals who can bring new perspectives and help reach a younger audience. Joining a board committee (for example, the marketing committee) is another option, as is seeking out new and/or very small charities that may have more trouble getting board members than the more well-known nonprofits in your community. A couple of ways to find out about board openings are signing up for the newsletter put out by your city’s young professionals group and doing a search on VolunteerMatch. For more details please check out our post on how to get on a board.

Collect donations from a nonprofit’s wish list. If you know it’ll go over well at work, and there aren’t any policies against it, tell your coworkers you’re collecting items for a local organization and put a box in your cubicle/office where things can be dropped off. It’s safest to pick a noncontroversial nonprofit, e.g., an animal shelter or children’s hospital, rather than an org whose activities or philosophy might spark debate at the office.

Readers, how about you — for those of you well-steeped in charitable giving, how would you advise other women to start helping charities? If you’re just starting to think about helping charities, what are your questions and concerns? In general, what are your favorite organizations or charities to help?

Ever wondered how to get started helping charities? Whether you've got money or time to donate, we rounded up some great advice for how to help charities.


  1. If you’re a person of faith and you regularly attend your house of worship, I’d urge you to give there.

    I’m on the board of my church and we get by every month by the skin of our teeth. People often assume that the state or national church hierarchy helps with operating costs, but it’s just a fraction of what’s needed to keep the doors open. People also assume that if they haven’t heard a request for donations, that things are a-ok. Not necessarily; asking for money can be uncomfortable. In many traditions, a faith leader won’t get up and say, “We have a hole in the roof and we need $4,500 to fix it,” so more funds than you imagine might be needed.

    Also, younger women looking for a board to serve on, consider your house of worship! Often these positions are taken by senior citizens because tradition/time, but many leaders would welcome someone younger with new ideas with open, open arms. (And learning how to overcome “that’s the way we’ve always done it” with grace is a wonderful skill to master!)

  2. On the topic of charitable giving, I just wanted to mention that the tax bill (which is nearly guaranteed to pass at this point) will reduce or eliminate the tax benefits most people get from charitable giving. So if you plan to give, do it in 2017.

    You can also set up a Donor Advised fund at any community foundation (most will set up up for a $4k-$5k minimum). It works a little bit like a medical savings account for donations – you get the tax deduction when you put the money in, but you can use it in future years to fund your charitable giving.

    • To clarify, Congress has NOT changed the charitable deduction, just that for many people, it may no longer make sense to itemize because of the increased standard deduction (from $6k to $12k for individuals and $12k to $24k for MFJ), so there’ll be no need to save all those tax receipts.

  3. Also, give cash to food banks, not canned goods. Our food bank has bulk purchasing deals where they can provide four meals for $1. So your money goes a lot farther directly donated to the food bank rather than spent at the grocery store.

    • Also, please give to their Operating or Unrestricted funds. Sometimes charities are awash in cash that can only be spent in certain ways (for the children! for the little doggies!) but they can barely make payroll or keep the lights on.

  4. Just shouting out Girls on the Run, if you’ve got one afternoon/early evening a week (it’s hard, I know!). Powerful program for girls in grades 3-8, but the biggest limitation is available coaches! :)

  5. Donors choose.

    Teachers request materials for a project. You pick a classroom and a project – I like to pick schools in my area with high poverty and STEM focused projects – and you either fully or partially fund them.

    And then you get wonderful thank you notes from the students. It’s absolutely my favorite.

    • +1. Over the years I’ve directed more and more of my direct dollars to DonorsChoose. I’ll even break my no-Facebook-solicitations rule to share a project that I know impacts my friends and their families. It’s hyper-local and incredibly tangible – the students benefit, but so do the teachers since so many of them would use their salaries to buy the supplies outright if they didn’t get funded.

      I also give to my local township, which runs our “adopt-a-family” initiative and year round food bank. Giving locally feels better to me – I feel like I’m investing in my future, since these will be the young people who will run my community as I get older. I want them well fed and well educated so I can benefit from their great ideas in 20 years.

  6. anonforthis :

    I am in Los Angeles, and like to give and volunteer locally. I donate to Neighborhood Legal Services (low-income legal services) and LAARP (LA Regional Reentry Partnership – prisoner reentry services). I feel passionately about the issues that these organizations deal with. I am a biglaw attorney, but have done some pro bono prisoners’ civil rights and DV/traffic court representations this year.

  7. anonforthis :

    I am in Los Angeles, and like to give and volunteer locally. I donate to Neighborhood Legal Services (low-income legal services) and LAARP (LA Regional Reentry Partnership – prisoner reentry services). I feel passionately about the issues that these organizations deal with. I am a biglaw attorney, but have done some pro bono prisoners’ civil rights and DV/traffic court representations this year..

  8. Making donations :

    You may also want to give to individuals you know who are in need. When I was a student, I remember the huge difference it made when I really needed $5 and someone gave me a $20 and told me not to worry about paying them back.

    If you are giving to give (rather than for a tax break), you may want to research local soup kitchens that aren’t 501C3 (many of the once or twice a year ones are founded and run by individuals and not be helped by corporations since they can’t write it off), you may want to consider giving to an elderly neighbor or a teen who you see working hard mowing lawns/shoveling snow, etc. You may know of a single mom in your community. You may also be able to find individuals who rescue and rehabilitate stray animals. While it’s always great to give with a deduction, think of those around you who may need, whom you could either knowingly gift to or you could leave a gift card in their mailbox. Another option is to provide a gift card to local schools with the note “for the special education teacher” or you can call a local school and ask to pay off the outstanding meal costs for students (typically tied to low income families who may not qualify for free meals but can’t afford to pay for meals).

    Hope this helps, happy giving!

    • Yes. Dad told me that I can forget about itemizeing b/c he is officially on the books to pay the morgage and I MUST stay in NYC to keep my job and must pay NYC and NYS taxes which are NOT goeing to be deducteable over $10K/year, even if . So with that, I will continue to give my money to LOCAL peeople who are not as fortuneate as I am b/c they can’t just move elsewhere either. I am lucky (execept in LOVE), so I will look to provide $5 to each person I see with a sign that says he / she needs money, and mabye $10 if the person looks hungry but also has a dog.

  9. Please just give your money (to your charity of choice). Time and things are great, but money is what we really need to carry out our mission.
    The smallest amounts do make a difference – every dollar counts.
    Do your own research if you’re concerned about a charity’s financial standings. All 990s for 2016 should be public record by this point.

  10. Anonymous :

    I donate appreciated stock to the local library and the food bank. It’s great for them, and helps me avoid some capital gains. For the local animal shelter, I buy from their Amazon wishlist and ship it direct.

  11. Anonymous :

    If you want to give locally and are daunted by vetting/researching, consider donating to a local community foundation. They generally regrant funds they raise to local organizations that they vet themselves. It is really hard for small, community-based organizations serving poor constituents to raise money, but in many cases they are very effective and have a great understanding of community needs.

    You can also research which organizations are getting funded by relevant government agencies, e.g., the National Endowment for the Arts, your state arts council, etc. These grants are typically awarded by peer panels and involve a lot of vetting. [I’m talking about grants from agencies, not elected officials (who like to give to their brother-in-law’s charity/vacation fund), and not fee-for-service contracts].

    Guidestar, Charity Navigator, etc. serve a purpose but their rating methods are controversial in the nonprofit world and are not the end all be all.

  12. Squiggles :

    I volunteer my time with my local humane society. I do not have spare cash to give, but I am able to give my time.

    From time to time, I will donate supplies that they need. Most of this is stuff I have a stockpile of (bought on sale) and can no longer use because they changed the formulation (laundry soap) or people have given me (dryer sheets) or even cat treats my cat doesn’t like, then the rest goes to their food bank. I even donate all the old supplies from when I put an animal to sleep (food, dishes, etc).

    That is something people should consider as well. Not as glamorous, not as easy as giving cash, but still it is appreciated a lot.

  13. Lawyers, consider on-line pro bono. Many states have an ABA affiliated program that allows attorneys to answer legal questions from income-qualified (“poor”) people. The attorney can choose a question to answer and submit it from any computer, at anytime of day. Answers can be anonymous. This is a flexible way to get Pro Bono hours and help those who don’t have access to an attorney.

    In Illinois, the site is:

  14. Contrary to what this post says, I’ve found joining nonprofit boards to be incredibly easy in my 20s and 30s. Maybe it’s because I have lived in smaller markets and have worked mostly with smaller organizations, but it seems nonprofits are often desperate for board members, especially those who can contribute professional expertise (i.e., lawyers).

  15. Faith2014 :

    Can I suggest I’ve been donating for years since reading about it in Forbes. It focuses on people who are on the edge, and encounter a crisis that can push them into poverty. Sometimes just getting help with a car repair or a rent/mortgage (someone goes into the hospital, and loses out on their paycheck for a couple of weeks) will keep a family or individual afloat.

    I set up a small monthly donation and a highlight of the first week of the month is picking what cases to “vote” for. (You cannot officially designate your money to an individual per the IRS rules, so you can vote with some of your donation to have the org. fund it.)

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