Charitable Giving Simplified

With gift-giving top of mind this time of year, the pressure to find the perfect gift for a friend, family member or colleague can be overwhelming. Last year around this time, Sara suggested some inspired gift ideas. One idea from that list I’d like to revisit is giving to a charitable cause.

Research clearly shows that givers to a worthy cause experience many well-documented benefits to their health and overall well-being. An August 2021 article on “How generosity changes your brain” explains how giving boosts happiness and ‘volunteering boosts health.’ Happiness researcher Arthur C. Brooks shared in the Harvard Crimson, ‘that when people give, they get “healthier, richer, better-looking.”

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

Winston Churchill

Armed with this information, you may be wondering what’s not to love about charitable giving this time of year? Well, if you’re like me or Sara, you were probably bombarded with 50-plus donation request emails from organizations on Giving Tuesday alone. The wide range of options could certainly leave you confused about where to start.

Inc Magazine recently examined the paradox of choice related to charitable giving for many, which is likely exacerbated by the year-end appeals of many worthwhile charities. Humans have a fundamental need to ‘exert control over their surroundings,’ yet too many choices can be paralyzing. The article also discusses the benefits of creating a ‘choice sweet spot.’  

I aksed my friend Ben Klasky about how he sorts through the range of charitable giving options, since the book he wrote and the organization he founded, both named Seismic Philanthropy, focus on helping corporate and wealthy charitable givers increase the impact of their gifts. The concept of “choice overload” with respect to philanthropic options resonates with Ben. “The challenge is there are way too many charities to support. Most people have very good intentions about giving back, but life gets in the way. They may think, ‘I’ll get to it tomorrow,’ but tomorrow never comes.”

Ben has spent much of his career strengthening communities and individuals through his work leading organizations like Net Impact and environmental educational nonprofit Island Wood. Ben’s philosophy of giving centers around the relationships he’s built and are a hallmark of his success.

When I asked Ben about how he thanks his clients each year, he shared: “Because I have such deep relationships with most of the people and organizations I serve, and those relationships revolve around charitable giving, it makes sense that our holiday gift would be a donation to an organization that is meaningful to the client.” This year, he listed 10 charities he had learned about through the clients he serves, and then asked each client to pick from the list. Seismic Philanthropy would make donations in honor of each client’s selections. Ben’s clever holiday gifting approach not only helps to narrow choices, it also eased the path to giving with Ben acting as a gifting accountability partner. 

Ben’s path to philanthropy has always been intentional, starting as far back as our college days when we first met at Tufts and he conducted independent research on the psychology of volunteerism. At a time when he had little to give financially, he learned that giving time and talent is valuable to the charity and to the volunteer. Ben’s company now serves people and organizations of significant means, and he was initially surprised to find that some of his clients were very cautious about their charitable giving. Perhaps a growing lack of trust in institutions is a factor, but choice also drives inertia–another hurdle Ben helps his clients overcome: “I told one client to start with five meaningful gifts, and let’s learn from those. Then I asked, ‘How did that make you feel?’”

Frankly, I love this approach. At year-end, I have made it a holiday tradition to ask my sons to select a few organizations to support with some of their allowance set aside for this purpose. They often delay sharing their picks, to the point that when December 31st rolls around, I’m making selections for them. When I choose for them, I am unintentionally distancing them from the act of giving. So, this year, I plan to make a short list of organizations that align with our family’s interests and values. Our favorite pet rescue, Heartland Animal Shelter, as well as an organization that supports the needs of communities in my home state of Kentucky, the Blue Grass Community Foundation, will be on that list. I will also include Roosevelt University, where I began working in October. In the short time I’ve been there, I’ve met dozens of students and alumni whose lives have been transformed by the university’s commitment to social justice, access and inclusion.

Creating a manageable list of organizations you can support this season is something you can try with a friend or a partner, as those we’re closest to see how we live our values every day. Because of that, they make great charitable giving accountability partners. And once the sweet spot of choice and control is found, the Inc article says: “The result? Happiness! (and donations)”

I can’t think of a better gift.

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