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Giving to Charity

By Christopher Schonberger

Generation-Y clearly has a social conscience. One must only log onto Facebook and look at all the groups about Darfur and bringing back Arrested Development to see that. The problem is that starting salaries don't stretch too far beyond the essentials, and many of us end up limiting our charitable endeavors to benefits/fundraisers that our friends are involved with. There’s nothing wrong with that, and at least there’s usually an open bar involved. But just because you’re not Bill Gates doesn’t mean you can’t make an impact. In this guide, we’ll discuss ways to find charities that interest you and ensure that your money—and time—is well spent.

Finding the Right Charity Fit

There are three major steps required in finding a charity: 1) choosing a cause that appeals to you, 2) finding the organizations that do the best work for that cause, and 3) figuring out whether that charity has a role that suits your needs. Usually, people stop at the first step and just go with the most ubiquitous name they come across. But it's important to realize that charities, just like companies, are often inefficient or ineffective, and they have different needs depending on their size and fundraising status.

So what are some ways to get involved? Giving a donation is costly but takes almost no time from you. Volunteering can be very time-consuming but doesn't cost anything. Finally, joining the youth council of a charitable organization may cost money and require a moderate time commitment. You're ultimate goal should be to find the charity that can make the best use of whatever it is you have to offer, whether that's money, time, organizing skills, graphic design help, etc. This approach may take a bit longer than just mailing in a check, but at least you'll know that you're maximizing your impact. Depending on how you’re scoring, any karma points that you get from just “being generous” won’t reach their full potential if the money and time’s not being put to good use!

Vetting Charitable Organizations

So how do you know if a charity does good work? Start out by checking out Charity Navigator, a website that rates and evaluates charities. Use it to get a read on a charity that interests you, or to find other charities that do work (maybe better work) in the same area. Also, conduct your own research and find out if there are any local organizations doing work in the field.

Once you've found "the one," you can either just make a donation (of any amount you feel comfortable with) or get in touch with them to learn more about the organization and ways you can help.

Charity on the Cheap: Giving Time and Other People’s Money

When you’re only pocketing $100 a month after rent, student debt repayments, and bills, you’d be forgiven for wanting to save a little for your own future. Needless to say, complete selflessness in your twenties is not the best retirement plan. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on others. If you can’t part with any of your hard-earned paycheck, consider volunteering or fundraising for a charity.

Volunteer Opportunities

If you’ve got the motivation, finding volunteer work is not that difficult. There are large-scale organizations like Habit for Humanity, YMCA, and Red Cross that are always looking for new recruits, but you can also search for local opportunities on sites like VolunteerMatch, Idealist, and 1-800-Volunteer. Just type in your zip code and keywords related to the type of charity you’d like to find (e.g., dogs, homeless, children). You can also check out the government’s volunteer site. If you really get into the spirit, you can even look for full-time non-profit work.

Ways to Fundraise

There’s a great tradition in this country of doing something completely unrelated to the work of a charity—like “blogging” or “running a marathon,” for example—and convincing other people to reward your hard work by giving that charity some money. The bizarreness of the underlying psychology eschews close investigation because at the end of the day, everyone wins so who cares? FirstGiving.com allows you to set up a fundraising page for almost any nonprofit, while Team in Training will help you raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by participating in a wide range of endurance events, like half-marathons and triathlons. Indeed, races and walk-a-thons are very popular events for raising money. Whenever you sign up for a major marathon or race of any type, you should be given opportunities to raise money for a variety of charities. Often, they’ll host training sessions and other get-togethers in the lead-up to the event, so in addition to getting into shape, achieving something you can be proud of, and helping a good cause, you may even meet some new people.

You can also create your own fundraisers. Are you a artist? Host a show or sell your pieces online for a good cause. Musician? Play a fundraising concert. You can even coordinate your office to have a charity event, which could range from something as simple as a bake sale to a more ambitious project (talk to HR about company fundraisers). Finally, if you're really ambitious or think there's an under served cause out there, check out this guide to starting your own charity.

How to Turn Volunteer Work into a Paying Job

If you're looking for a job and not doing anything else with your time, you should certainly consider volunteering for an organization that resonates with you. Almost every hiring manager and recruiter we speak to mentions the importance of volunteer work as a way of building skills and showing you're engagement with what it is you want to do at their company. For example, if you want to be in marketing and you can offer to help a local charity create an online identity to reach people via Facebook, Twitter, and other means, you then have evidence of your ability to think like a marketer when leveraging these tools. This has a lot more resonance than saying that you know you have a Facebook account and are confident you could use social media to help grow a company.

In addition, volunteering creates another opportunity to network and build new skills, both of which are crucial to the process of landing a job.

The Benefits of Charity

What’s the best part about giving to charity? No, dummy, not feeling like you’ve made a difference. The tax break!

Whenever you donate to a recognize charity, you can file for a tax deduction on your donation at the end of the year. The charity has to have received it's 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, and you will need to provide records of your donations. You can keep written documentation of cash donations, but if they exceed $250 you'll need official documentation from the charity. And remember: donations to your alma mater are tax deductible, as well!

What if you decide to volunteer your time instead of your money? Volunteer work itself does not earn you a deduction, but you can get cash back on travel and other expenses associated with charitable work.

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