Make your good deed count for more

Want to have the most impact with your donations or your time? Pick a cause and stick with it.

By Jean Chatzky, Money Magazine editor at large

(Money Magazine) -- Makeup entrepreneur Bobbi Brown wasn't looking for another charity to support when she was invited to a breakfast for Dress for Success, a group that provides professional clothing for disadvantaged women so they can go on job interviews.

She went because she figured it would be early and quick enough "not to take a chunk out of my day." Then she heard DFS founder Nancy Lublin speak about how she'd started the charity with the $5,000 her great-grandfather Poppy Max had left her.

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Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at money_life@moneymail.com.
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"She said she wanted to do something to make him proud," Brown remembers. "Well, I had a Papa Max too."

An hour later Brown left the venue inspired. She started offering makeovers for women who were getting outfitted by DFS. And recently, as a way to mark her 50th birthday, she ran the group's 10th-anniversary gala and set a goal of raising $1 million.

She beat her number.

Now, raising a million bucks is a crazy tall order. But the lesson Brown's experience teaches is one that anyone can apply: There's a huge difference between having a bunch of charities you support because your friends volunteer there or your company encourages you and having a cause that feels like home.

"When you spread your time and your dollars all over the place," says Brown, "you don't really get to see what those dollars mean. When you're focused, you see that the things you're doing make a huge difference in people's lives - and that makes all the difference in the world."

Now if you're like me the problem is that there are a lot of groups and causes that pull a string or two. With me they include heart disease, Parkinson's, financial literacy and my alma mater. How can I be sure I'm making the right choice before I commit?

I went in search of experts to help me, and you, figure this out. Here's their advice.

Take the inward journey

"Becoming a thoughtful philanthropist is very much about introspection," says Ellen Barclay, president of a network of local grantmaker associations. "Think about what it is that you really care about."

That may get you down to two or three causes. Then use the Web to put your finger on organizations that serve those needs. Start by checking out the information at guidestar.org and charitynavigator.org.

By looking over financial reports and descriptions of charities' activities, you can narrow your list down to maybe half a dozen or so that you'd like to investigate further. Then hit those groups' Web sites for more information.

There are more than a million charities in this country. Whatever your interest, chances are you can find a group already existing that serves that purpose.

Ask, Who needs me?

To winnow your list further, reverse the question. How much does the organization or cause need your time or money? In general being a bigger fish in a smaller pond means you'll have more impact.

You don't have to make all of your charitable contributions to a single group, though one should get the lion's share. And before you become active, meet with the charity's volunteer coordinators to see what they'd like to get out of you.

If they seem uninterested, that tells you all you need to know.

Consider what will make you happy

Stop and think about the payoff from your involvement and how much of it you'll see. Is most of the charity's budget going toward researching a solution to a big problem, meaning results might be years or decades away? Can you really sustain your commitment in that case?

"I'm all about immediate gratification," Brown acknowledges. "Dress for Success was a perfect match for me because I could instantly see an improvement when a woman put on lipstick or a scarf."

Don't compromise

"Too many people settle for a charity that 'kind of' does what they 'kind of' like," says Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator. Settling can be a waste of time for both you and the organization. "The highest turnover rate in all the nonprofit world is that of volunteers," Stamp explains.

Nonprofit organizations can be supremely dysfunctional, so if you're going to make a commitment of any serious time or money, the group's mission has got to be in sync with your interests. Otherwise the hassles that come with volunteerism will snuff out your zeal.

Do it with friends

I'm of the belief that anything you do with other people - preferably people you like and respect - has a greater chance of success than something you do alone. That's why I have running partners. I know I won't give in to my laziness or desire for another cup of coffee when a friend is waiting on the street corner.

If you're that sort of person, you may want to think about joining - or forming - a "giving circle" with friends or work associates who have an interest in the same cause you do. Besides making you feel accountable to other people, a giving circle lets you be a part of a group that can have much greater impact than you could on your own.

And, of course, charities pay more attention to donors when they know there is more money that could come in.

Finally, once you've hit upon something that is meaningful to you, set some benchmarks. "We all need yardsticks of measurement and goals to measure against," says Jason Willett, spokesman for VolunteerMatch.org, a Web site that links individuals willing to donate their time with charities that need them.

Once you've decided where you want to get involved, figure out what you want to do and how long you want to give yourself to accomplish it. Brown's million-dollar triumph was more meaningful because she gave herself a hurdle and then leaped over it.

But you certainly don't have to set that size goal to get going. Make it meaningful to you - and the organization - and everybody wins in the end.

Arielle McGowen contributed to this article. Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.