How to give when the giving gets tough

DIY fundraising, group volunteering, even picking the right bank: Learn 13 creative ways to maximize your charitable impact without writing a huge check.

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By George Mannes, Money Magazine senior writer

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Nancy McCauley Branstetter (with kids at Starfish Family Services near Detroit) was forced to dream up less costly ways to support the charity.
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(Money Magazine) -- Nancy McCauley Branstetter, a former communications executive at Ford Motor Co., is passionate about a cause that feels especially urgent lately: helping disadvantaged children and families who live in the economically stricken Detroit area.

For the past decade she has donated a few hours a month and up to $2,000 a year to Starfish Family Services, a nonprofit agency an hour from her Highland, Mich., home that offers everything from a free Head Start program to temporary shelter for teens in crisis. She's even on the board. Says the married mother of two: "I want children to have the best shot at life that they can."

But last year Ford gave Branstetter a pink slip -- leaving her scrambling to find ways to continue her support. While she has ramped up the time she spends doing volunteer work for the charity as she job hunts, "I don't know how much money I'll be able to donate this year," she admits.

Even if you didn't lose your job in the recession, chances are you're worried about the economy and about your battered investment portfolio. Like Branstetter, you're wondering whether you can continue the level of giving you managed when times were flush. What makes the situation especially heart-rending is that charities need help more than ever. And nowhere is that truer than in Detroit.

As the metro area's unemployment rate has soared to 17.8% vs. 9.8% nationally, the amount of money that most charities there collect has plunged. For example, contributions to United Way for Southeastern Michigan fell 21% in its latest fiscal year. (That compares to a 5% drop for the average United Way.)

"There's definitely more competition among us for fewer dollars," says Kevin Roach, executive director of South Oakland Shelter, which assists homeless families in the region.

The good news is that plenty of people in Motown have risen to the challenge, coming up with smart ways to benefit worthy causes without digging any deeper into their own pocketbooks. You can get a lot of great ideas from what they're doing -- and apply them to the charity that means most to you.

Maximize your own resources

Dish out professional know-how, not just soup. While it's helpful to wield a ladle at a nearby local homeless shelter or stuff envelopes for a fundraising campaign, a charity could benefit much more from the professional skills you've accumulated. If you're an accountant, volunteer to help with the books; if you're a lawyer, offer to negotiate the charity's next contract.

Branstetter is using her public relations experience to help Starfish raise its profile among potential supporters, spearheading a marketing and communications committee comprising a half-dozen professionals.

"To hire a company to do the same thing would have cost Starfish thousands of dollars, easily," she says. (Remember to keep track of your travel to and from the charity: You can deduct it from your taxable income to the tune of 14¢ a mile.)

Clean out the garage, attic, basement ... Late Aunt Ethel's unused end table, the boxes of baby clothes for a kid who long ago ditched Barney for the Black Eyed Peas -- donate them to a local charity that distributes household goods to the needy. (You might also consider a branch of a national organization such as Goodwill or the Salvation Army.) You'll help families that could desperately use those items, and you'll get a tax deduction for their fair market value.

Why not just hold a garage sale and donate the proceeds? Because a thrift store does a much better job attracting those in need, says Michelle St. Pierre, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Michigan Division of the Salvation Army. "Many people who hold garage sales end up donating to us anyway," she says, "because they couldn't sell the items."

Put your plastic to work. Plenty of credit cards promise to send a particular charity a cut of whatever you charge. But most give a measly 0.1% to 0.5%. An exception: the Capital One Visa Platinum affiliated with the American Fertility Association, which gives 1% to the nonprofit plus a $25 donation after you make your first purchase. Bank of America's World Wildlife Fund Visa Signature gives that charity a generous $100 when you sign up, plus 25¢ for every $100 you spend. To find such cards, Google charities' names and "credit card."

If you charge up a storm and pay your bills religiously each month, you may be better off getting a cash-back card and using those rewards to make a deductible donation. One of the best: Schwab Bank Invest First Visa Signature, which gives 2% cash back (you must be a Schwab One brokerage customer).

Pick the right bank. You can do good and make money by parking your cash in a community-development financial institution: a bank or credit union that works with underserved people in a particular area or social group.

For example, First American International Bank in Brooklyn, N.Y., which offers a money-market account yielding 1.0%, aims to help develop the area's Asian community. "When you can do good so easily," says Jennifer Lazarus, a financial planner who specializes in socially responsible investing, "it's a no-brainer."

Find a directory of CDFIs at communityinvestingcenterdb.org. Then check bankrate.com to make sure an institution's Safe & Sound rating is at least three stars.

Get your employer to help

Snag a match. Charitable matching-gift programs haven't all gone the way of office ashtrays. About 30% of large corporations offer them, according to Hewitt Associates. Check your employee intranet or human resources department to see if yours does.

If the answer is yes, fill out some simple paperwork and you can double the amount of money your cause collects. Most such programs will match your donation dollar for dollar up to a ceiling of $500 to $5,000 a year (religious institutions and fraternal organizations are generally excluded). Some will match donations that occur only during a certain time of year, usually year-end. So get moving!

Ask for dollars for volunteer work you're already doing. An increasingly popular employer program -- available at about one out of every six companies that offer matching gifts -- is what's known as "sweat equity" or "dollars for doers," says Marianna Funk, senior researcher at fundraising advisory firm HEP Development. You put in a specified number of volunteer hours per year at a charity of your choice; your company matches your labor with cold hard cash for that organization. The usual formula: $250 for 20 hours of work, or $500 for 50. Ask HR for details.

Suggest your pet charity for a company project. When it comes to team-building exercises, nonprofit experts say many companies have jettisoned Outward Bound courses and "trust falls" in favor of having employees spend a day working together on a charitable project.

Don't just wait around for an activity to be assigned: Step up and suggest that the team work with a charity you support. While at Ford, for example, Branstetter helped establish a program that matches organizations seeking assistance with employee groups looking for projects -- and made sure Starfish was listed. One payoff: a group of Ford employees repainted a wing at the nonprofit's headquarters that is used for children's programs.

Your company may be willing to give you more leeway than you think. To raise money for the Michigan chapter of the ALS Association this fall, Tony Nuckolls, 36, a vice president at Quicken Loans' Livonia, Mich., office, found some creative ways to solicit donations from fellow staffers.

In return for a $10 contribution, employees could escape the corporate dress code for a day. Or they could have an executive valet-park their car in the company lot. Campaigns like this generate awareness as well as money, says Nuckolls, whose office raised more than $30,000: "It's a topic of conversation, like viral marketing."

Toot your own horn. Lots of companies honor employees' volunteer efforts by giving awards that include a cash gift to the winner's charity. Lundrell Harris, 36, scored such a prize from her employer, MGM Grand Detroit, in September. The charity for which she volunteers -- Think Detroit PAL (she coaches cheerleaders for a youth league team) -- won $1,000. So don't be shy: Check with HR to see if those kinds of awards are given at your company and how you can get nominated.

Rope in friends & family

Rethink your holiday wish list. This season, when your kids and pals start asking whether you'd prefer Santa's portrait or Rudolph's on your new sweater, ask for donations for your favorite charity instead. "Most people appreciate that," says Robin Ferriby of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. "You're helping to impress upon them what you value."

Throw a fundraising party. The next time you schedule a shin-dig, give it a charitable theme. Ask your guests to bring an appropriate donation, such as an old suit for Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org), which outfits disadvantaged women around the country who are trying to enter the workforce. Or spend a few minutes talking about your favorite cause and gently put in a pitch for guests to volunteer their time or money.

That's what Susan Gailey Vincent, 52, general counsel for Amerisure Insurance, did. Last winter she co-hosted a wine-tasting party that raised $5,000 for the Detroit area Junior Achievement, which teaches kids financial literacy and other skills. Between the Merlots and the Cabernets, she and her co-host spoke about JA's mission and their involvement with the organization. "I think our friends enjoyed it and hopefully didn't mind being hit up a little bit for a contribution," says Vincent.

Lace up your walking shoes. It may be three decades since you last participated in a March of Dimes walk-a-thon, but it's never too late to raise money with a little physical endurance. For a list of walk-a-thons nationwide that you can join, go to charitywalksblog.com. They all work pretty much the same way: You ask people you know to "sponsor" you, promising to ante up, say, $5 for every mile you walk (or a lump sum for completing the entire challenge). Prefer to roll rather than hoof it? Google "bike-athon" or "charity ride" and the name of your city.

Create your own "a-thon." If the cause you support doesn't sponsor a run/walk/bike-a-thon of its own, set up your own mini-version. In October, Mike Juchno and Brad Feldman -- board members of the Detroit-area Junior Achievement -- raised money by running in a half-marathon. They solicited sponsorships from family, friends, even clients. "You've just got to be bold," says Juchno, 38, a partner at Ernst & Young. "You say, 'Believe me, I'm extending myself to do this, so I'm asking you to extend yourself.' " Their haul: $6,400.

Certain Web sites can make such projects easier to organize, though they'll take a not-insignificant cut of the proceeds. Juchno and Feldman used Firstgiving (firstgiving.com), which makes it simple to set up a personal site complete with a photo and fundraising tools, such as messages from givers and the classic thermometer graphic showing how close you're getting to your goals. In return, Firstgiving takes 7.5% of online donations. Another service, Network for Good (networkforgood.org) -- which is used by the Causes application on Facebook -- charges a more reasonable 4.75% but offers fewer features.

Speaking of Facebook, if you're raising money you would be foolish not to tap your contacts in social-networking sites. Feldman, 36, a life insurance adviser at the firm Schechter Wealth Strategies, solicited donations on his Facebook page, adding a link to Firstgiving to make it easy for pals to give. "Twenty-five percent of my donations came from Facebook friends," he says.

Ask pals to roll up their sleeves too. Assembling your friends and family to volunteer together is another great way to magnify your impact. That might mean gathering several of them to work on a local Habitat for Humanity project, for example (go to habitat.org and click on Volunteer Locally). Or it might just mean recruiting the one person who has the perfect skills to help.

That's one of the most valuable contributions that Branstetter ever made to Starfish Family Services. Two years ago, it occurred to her that her then-colleague Ann Kalass, a top-level sales and marketing executive at Lincoln Mercury, might be a good fit for the nonprofit. She's now its CEO.

Beth Braverman contributed to this article. To top of page

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