Make a plan, don't give out of guilt

By Dan Kadlec, contributing editor


BILLIONAIRES: Are businesslike about giving.

YOU: Plan out your giving for the year and take time to research charities.

Buffett doesn't sit down on Dec. 31, checkbook in hand, trying to remember how much he's already donated during the year and who already got a gift from him.

In fact, he decided several years ago that he would make annual donations with the aim of giving away about 85% of his Berkshire Hathaway stock (he also plans to give away most of the rest of his fortune).The bulk of the donations will go to the foundation started by the Gateses, whose charitable works Buffett says he has long admired.

But if you're like most donors, you respond to appeals in a haphazard way and don't bother to keep tabs on your gifts until tax time, says Sean Stannard-Stockton, CEO of Tactical Philanthropy Advisors in Burlingame, Calif.

"If you don't keep track, you're likely to give less -- not more -- than what you had envisioned," he says.

A better idea: At the beginning of the year settle on how much you want to give to charity and work that into your budget. Then set up automatic quarterly payments from your checking account so that you'll stick to your commitment, as well as spread your giving throughout the year.

Take advantage of online tools to check that a charity is making the best use of its funds. Start at charitynavigator.org, where you'll find information on more than 5,500 organizations, including easy-to-use star ratings based on each group's financial health and its efficiency with donor funds.

If your prospective recipient isn't listed, you can always find the IRS Form 990 for more than 1.8 million U.S. charities on Guidestar.org; it reveals how much of an organization's budget goes to fundraising and administration vs. programs.

An efficient charity generally spends no more than 30% of its budget on such overhead, says Claudia Sangster, the director of philanthropy services at Harris myCFO.

Look back a few years to see if the organization has had high turnover at the board or management level. (Yearly overhauls are a signal the group may be dysfunctional, says Sangster.)

Also, check press releases on the charity's website to see whether it has support from well-known foundations; if so, the organization has likely been vetted by the foundations as well.

If you want an outside assessment on how well your favorite charity is accomplishing its goals, look it up on givewell.org, which analyzes the effectiveness of charities' programs. Because the site requires nonprofits to submit extensive information, however, only about 400 have been analyzed so far.

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