How to give back without breaking your budget

You don’t need deep pockets to be generous.

As an associate real estate broker with Warburg Realty in New York City, Maria Daou now sends 1% of all her commissions to her favorite charity, Wellness in the Schools, which works to end childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating habits in public schools. However, that wasn’t always possible. When her three kids were younger and money was tight, Daou had to get creative to be generous. Her children attend public schools where they get a quality education, but there isn’t much in the budget for extras. Though she couldn’t always donate money, she leveraged her connections to chair seven school auctions. Read on for expert strategies to give back to your favorite causes — even on a limited budget.

Budget for charitable giving.

Rather than writing a check every time you hear about a good cause, be deliberate with your giving. “Don’t respond emotionally or urgently to things,” says John Hill, president of the independent insurance agency Gateway Retirement Inc. in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Instead, Hill advocates for planning charitable giving as part of your budget to ensure your money goes to your preferred charities, rather than ending up donated in response to unsolicited appeals.

Volunteer for a charity.

If giving money isn’t possible, donate your time. “It doesn’t have to be a regular five-hour commitment,” Daou says. “There is always a half an hour at night to give some time.” Organizations may need volunteers to make calls, enter data or send emails. Others may have volunteer opportunities that last for a single day, but make a significant local impact. For instance, community nonprofits such as food banks, senior centers or nature preserves may organize service days to clean up natural areas or complete home repairs for senior neighbors.

Organize a fundraiser.

Chairing a fundraiser is a great way to raise a significant amount of money for a worthy cause. Auctions, galas, walk-a-thons and online fundraising are all options. Many established organizations provide extensive support resources for those who want to raise money on their behalf. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Daou says. For instance, CROP Hunger Walks provides information on logistics, planning and running a charity walk, while St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital provides a coordinator’s guide, workbooks and promotional material for those hosting one of its Math-a-Thon fundraisers.

Support a fundraiser.

If organizing a fundraiser seems overwhelming, you could support it in other ways. Auctions are often looking for gift certificates, Daou says. Supporting a nonprofit may be as simple as asking your favorite stores if they would be willing to donate a gift card or other auction item. Another way to support a favorite charity is to attend their fundraiser. While bidding on items at an auction event can be pricey, buying a ticket to attend may be more reasonable. It may also fit easily into the budget if the event replaces a usual date night or evening out with friends.

Look for matching gift opportunities.

Stretch your money further by donating at a time when a matching gift is offered. Major donors will sometimes match contributions to a specific charity up to a certain amount, plus matching gifts are often available through employers. Corporations set their own guidelines on how much they will match and which employees are eligible. In most cases, workers must submit a form with proof of their donation for a match to be issued. However, some companies may match donations made automatically through payroll deductions. Talk to your human resources department to see if and how your company matches charitable gifts.

Donate from your retirement fund.

At age 70 1/2, retirees with traditional IRAs and 401(k)s must take out a required minimum distribution each year. The exact amount is calculated by a formula that takes into account a person’s age and account balance. It’s taxable income, but retirees who don’t need the money can avoid the tax by making a qualified charitable distribution instead. “It has to be done a certain way,” Hill says. Money must be sent directly from the retirement account to an eligible charity. Consult with a finance professional if you want to make a charitable gift this way.

Make a final gift with life insurance.

You don’t need a large estate to make one last donation to your favorite charity. “Life insurance is a great and often inexpensive option to leave a final gift,” says Brian Madgett, vice president of the insurer New York Life. To do this, policyholders only have to name the charity as a beneficiary and provide its tax identification number to the insurance company. “There really are no limitations on splitting up beneficiaries,” Madgett says. That means you can split your death benefit among multiple charities or direct a small percentage to a nonprofit while leaving the rest to heirs.


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