How to Give Back When You’re Trying to Save

I once volunteered at a fancy charity gala, where well-dressed men and women much older than me casually made donations for hundreds and thousands of dollars. At the time, my meager graduate school budget in no way allowed for such generosity. Philanthropy seemed to be an activity reserved for rich housewifes and distinguished CEOs, right?

Wrong.

Any fundraising professional will be the first to tell you that while million dollars gifts are both crucial and wonderful, every penny has the potential to make a meaningful difference for communities in need. Here’s how you can donate—and truly impact the lives of others—without wasting your hard-earned cash or blowing up your bank account.

MAKE IT PERSONAL

Everywhere you turn, there’s an opportunity to give: the homeless person shaking a cup on the sidewalk, the letter from your alma mater, the online fundraising platform for your friend’s cousin’s niece’s chemo treatment, the national organization striving to end hunger or global efforts to reduce poverty. It’s hard to know where to start, which can lead to feelings of helplessness, fatigue and frustration.

So make it personal. For example, I donate to a local animal shelter, a nonprofit that raises funds for parents of children facing life-threatening heart disease and a charity for inner-city at-risk youth. Why do these organizations receive my money, and not others? Because I adopted a cat from that shelter and saw firsthand how hard the staff works to take care of abandoned pets. Because family members spent countless hours in the hospital with their infant daughter after her heart transplant. Because I walked to work once upon a time and saw the bright little faces of those boys and girls eagerly awaiting tutoring sessions with volunteers. 

All of those choices are near and dear to my heart. Your list is probably different, as it should be. Take time to think about the topics that specifically matter to you and consider the spheres in which you’d like to try to make a difference. From there, research local and national charities, nonprofits or groups that directly support those causes. Don’t be afraid to send an email or pick up the phone to learn more, and if you’re not sure where to start, ask family, coworkers, friends and acquaintances where and how they donate. Slowly pay attention to what resonates with you or stokes your interest or makes your heart cry out with compassion. Donating isn’t technically about you, of course, but you’re more likely to give back when the choice feels relatable, valuable and important on an individual scale. 

SET LIMITS WITHOUT GUILT

Look at your checkbook, and be honest: how much can you afford to give over the course of a year? Based on your priorities, this number can range quite a bit—but it should always be an amount that you feel comfortable allotting to charity. Once you decide upon a total donation, plan out the timing as well as the recipient(s). 

For instance, I aim to donate $100 per year to 3-4 causes. I take that number and divide it by 52 weeks, and then I typically set up an automatic savings plan to transfer $2 per week into an account. I either donate smaller amounts to a charity on my list every quarter, or wait until the end of a calendar year for lump-sum gifts. To me, saving a couple bucks a week for charity costs less than a cold-brew coffee, so that’s the number I believe I can “afford” to give. 

I’ll admit that I’d love to be able to write a check for six figures some day. But right now, I’m not a millionaire and I’ve got bills to pay (hello, student loans). I try not to feel bad about what I can’t do and focus instead on how I can help. $10 here and $25 there doesn’t seem like much at first; however, it adds up over time—and it’s better than nothing. Altruistic limits help me figure out how to make fiscal space for giving in a strategic, manageable way, and at the same time, keep my budget intact.

NO MONEY, NO PROBLEM

If there is absolutely no wiggle room in your finances, remember the value of your time. Sign up for a shift at your local food pantry or drop off a meal at a women’s shelter. Lead an effort to collect winter coats for kids in need. Heck, run a race to benefit your favorite charity and let other people raise the funds you’d like to give. Volunteer opportunities abound, and most organizations would be thrilled for your support and energy. 

Another option? Clean out your closets Marie Kondo-style in order to donate physical items such as outgrown or unworn clothing, extra cleaning supplies, unused books and toys, canned goods and more. Whatever no longer brings you joy can certainly put a needed smile on someone else’s face. 

EVALUATE YOUR IMPACT

Part of the satisfaction of helping others involves knowing precisely how you caused a positive change. Many people argue that they don’t like to donate funds because they “aren’t sure where the money goes.” My response to that: if you don’t know, ask. It’s your money, after all! You have permission to clarify how it’s going to be used, and you should always feel empowered to shift gears. 

Reevaluate every year. Along with receipts and tax statements, request pictures, annual reports, project status briefings—whatever helps you see and understand exactly how and why your donation matters. Donating is absolutely a luxury and a privilege. However, it’s also a rewarding opportunity to create change in the world by diverting extra cents to helping others. Believe that you can make a difference by giving what you can—even on a tight budget. 

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