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The team from Charity Navigator, the nation's largest independent charity evaluator and leading donor advocate, shares their thoughts on emerging nonprofit-sector issues and offers tips to better inform your intelligent giving decisions.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Intentional Giving Strategies: Make a Plan for Your Holiday Giving

The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University reported on the findings of the Giving USA Annual Report on Philanthropy, which showed that individuals, bequests, foundations and corporations gave an estimated $471.44 billion to U.S. charities. Giving by individuals increased by 2.2% in 2020, making up an estimated total of $324.10 billion.

In a few short weeks, the most important period on the nonprofit fundraising calendar will begin —  the annual giving season. Once it begins on GivingTuesday and until the new year, it can be a ‘make or break’ moment for nonprofits as they budget for the upcoming calendar year. Many nonprofits receive the majority of funding within these two short months, regardless of how many fundraising mail drives, in-person or virtual events an organization may host throughout the year.

As a donor, you may notice an uptick in phone calls, emails, and physical fundraising mail pieces you receive during this time. Whether you’re a recurring donor, or someone who had supported these charities once before, you are tasked with deciding: do you continue to support them now? What about the charities you’d never supported but have reached out to you? Should you support them? How do you choose?  If you have a philanthropic giving strategy in place, the answers may be easy. If not, depending on your financial situation and other factors, you might write a check or press the donate button. Instead of impulse giving in the moment, Charity Navigator urges you to set  up your giving strategy now, before the beginning of giving season. 

Begin by creating a list of cause areas that matter to you, your family, and your community. For example, you may know that some members in your community were hard-hit during the pandemic, and you’d like to make sure everyone has enough to feed themselves this holiday season. Your list could include food banks and homeless shelters. Or, you may want to fund a national organization that is advocating for more robust social programs to feed the hungry. This list can be broad at first, and then get more specific as you think through your passions. The next step is locating charities doing work that aligns with your list by researching them on Charity Navigator.

Just as much as you’re trying to decide what charities to support, so are we!  We asked a few of our Charity Navigator teammates, “What do you look for when selecting charities to support, particularly long term? What assessments are you using to influence your philanthropic decision-making?”  Here are a few responses:

When making a giving decision, I first look with my heart: I look for organizations whose missions align with my beliefs or desired social outcomes. Then, I look with my head: I check those organizations for their rating on Charity Navigator, and I attempt to understand the organization’s plan for producing the desired outcome, e.g. its theory of change or logic model. With the trio of mission, rating, and logic model, I feel confident that my gift will have an impact on the things I care about.

- Kevin


I have a list of charities that I give to on a recurring basis, either monthly or annually. I like to check in with them around the end of the year to see what they’ve been up to. I’ll review their Charity Navigator rating around this time to see if anything has changed that I should be aware of, and I also take a look at their website. For charities that I’m considering, they tend to focus on big structural problems and how to solve them. To be added to my list of trusted charities, I look to see if they are centering equity and if they have a strategic plan that aligns with their mission. If they do, I then make sure they’ve earned a “Give with Confidence” designation on Charity Navigator. 

- Megan


I look for smaller organizations that are in the grassroots stage that share my interests for philanthropy. In most cases, they don’t qualify for a Charity Navigator rating but that doesn’t deter me. I do my research looking at missions, funding, and their programs. I support human services nonprofits, such as local food pantries instead of food banks, and local charities established to honor a person but then grow in support to help others. Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation is one example, and the Robert Longo ALS Fund is another. Although not always, most of my donating targets these types of organizations. 

- Mary


I look at my charitable giving through two lenses. 1) What is the most cost effective way to help those most needy in  the world? and 2) What can I do to address an issue in my community? To answer the first question, the evidence directs me to give organizations providing proven global health interventions in malaria control, vaccination and other preventable childhood diseases. These programs often have longer term benefits in education and economic growth that make them extremely impactful. Locally, I use community assessments to understand emerging needs. Recently, those assessments drove me to donate to organizations reducing  food insecurity and to support local food banks. I used the Charity Navigator impact rating to make sure my local food bank operated effectively.

- Laura


When choosing nonprofits to support, I consider if the organization is bringing support to communities I care most about. I especially like to know that their programs are getting the bulk of funding. Many of the communities I’d like to see supported are often grossly underfunded and underserved in so many ways, so ensuring that most of my money goes directly to the program constituents is very important to me.

- Grace


I’ve had a philanthropic giving strategy for years. I have a budget, and my expenses are planned for the year, and that includes giving. Nonprofits I support have been ones I’ve supported for years. New nonprofits are considered only if they fall within specific cause areas, and even then, I may select only one new charity every 3 - 5 years. (Last year was an exception because of the economic crisis facing charities as a result of the pandemic.) Long before I worked at Charity Navigator, I used it as a reference, along with other sources, to determine what charities to support based on how much of their donations go directly into their programs, their fiscal responsibility, and leadership. (I will dig for information.)  Nonprofits with a local presence have always taken first priority, especially those serving historically marginalized communities and individuals of all ages who are at risk, but I have not shied away from nonprofits providing international programs and services. We have one world. What affects one, can affect us all, which reminds me of my first, significant charitable gifts - USA for Africa and Live Aid in 1985. 

- Stacy

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We hope this has provided some insight into how the team at Charity Navigator, like you, think about our giving. We challenge you now to put your plans into place for the 2021 giving season.  GivingTuesday falls on November 30 this year - give with your heart as well as your head.


Authored by Stacy Steele, Director of Marketing and Communications, and Megan Ritter, Grants Manager at Charity Navigator.

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