5 ways to give big on a shoestring budget

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Charitable giving is an important financial practice for many Americans, but with money tight in a down economy, you may find it more difficult to give to organizations that hold a special place in your heart than in the past.

If so, you’re not alone.

According to a study by Glenview, Ill.-based philanthropic research organization Giving USA Foundation, the amount raised through charitable giving dropped in 2008 for the first time since 1987. However, nonprofit and philanthropic experts point out creative ways you can continue to offer support even on a tighter budget.

1. Form a giving circle. People have been giving collaboratively for hundreds of years, but in the last decade, giving circles — groups that formally raise money together to donate to charity — have become more visible and more active, says Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, communications director for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers in Baltimore.

“Giving circles appeal to those who really care about an issue,” she says. If you have $100 to give, it will have greater impact, she adds, if, “your $100 check (is) put together essentially in an envelope with 100 other $100 checks.”

If you would like to donate $500 to the Cancer Awareness Society but are short of funds right now, find a group of 10 people and get them to each put in $50. In doing so, you’re still making sure the organization gets your annual donation (or even more); you’re just getting more people involved in the process.

Giving circles can be as formal or informal as you want them to be. While some circles simply write out an annual check, others also spend a lot of time educating the members and the public about the cause for which they are raising money.

If you don’t want to start your own giving circle, you can join an existing one, though some have rules concerning the amount each member is expected to give. Find more information and a list of giving circles at www.givingforum.org and www.givingcircles.org.

2. Donate services. Charitable organizations not only need money to run, but they also need people to do the work. And that need may, in fact, be growing. The Giving USA Foundation report found that 60 percent of human services charities planned this year to cut services or staff because of funding shortages.

The Internet has many resources where you can find organizations looking for volunteers, says Katya Andresen, chief operating officer of Network For Good, a Bethesda, Md.-based organization that brings together volunteers, donors and charities.

“In three minutes, you can find hundreds of opportunities that are convenient and well-suited to whatever you’re looking for,” Andresen says.

With the Obama administration’s focus on volunteerism, the government-sponsored Web site Serve.gov also lets you search for volunteer opportunities that coincide with your interests. Don’t forget to consider your skills when seeking out opportunities. For example, if you’re an artist, you can volunteer to design a flyer or brochure. If you’re a writer, you can help with the newsletter. It’s important to note that volunteering for a charitable organization is not tax-deductible, though you can deduct the cost of travel expenses incurred when going to do the volunteer work.

3. Budget micro amounts. Many people think they have to write out a large annual check to make a difference, but, “We believe you can make a difference with $1,” says Michelle Fraedrick, executive director of MicroGiving. The Boynton Beach, Fla.-based online community encourages donors to give small, affordable amounts directly to people in need.Fraedrick says she’s noticed more organizations looking into the micro concept and encouraging donors to consider it.

You can also set up a small recurring donation, such as $10 monthly, says Andresen. Such a move is “great for charities because they can see that they have recurring donors and they can count on money coming in regularly,” she says.

4. Search and shop consciously. How often do you search for something online? Have a penny donated to your favorite charity by simply using goodsearch.com, which is powered by Yahoo’s search engine, each time.

A penny may not seem like a lot, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, has made more than $25,000 through searches since 2007. The search engine’s sister site, goodshop.com, features more than 1,000 retailers such as Amazon.com, Radio Shack and Target. When you shop at these retailers through GoodShop, an average 3 percent of the purchase will go to your favorite charity.

“We hear every day from people who are using these sites, saying they’re not able to write the donation checks that they could a couple of years ago because they’re stretched themselves,” says JJ Ramberg, co-founder of GoodSearch LLC, the parent company of the two sites, based in Los Angeles. “But they really care deeply about their causes and want to help them out. This is a way that they’re finding to help the organizations out without having to spend any extra money.”

5. Create a social event. When groups of people come together for charity, “there’s a strong social and networking component that makes it fun for people to not only give, but to give in a way that’s meaningful to them and do it with like-minded individuals, ” says Beaudoin-Schwartz.

So get creative by attaching a charity to a special event. Getting married? Include a donation to your favorite charity as one of the registry gifts. Having a birthday party? Ask guests to donate to a charity in lieu of gifts. Some groups are also encouraging giving by adding an education component to their fundraising, Beaudoin-Schwartz adds. For example, they’ll share with friends and family members statistics and research related to their favorite cause, and in some cases, they’ll use group fundraising activities as a way to teach children the value of charitable giving.

“In some cases children are donors, depending on the age of the child. In others, children learn more about the topic area that the nonprofit or charity is focusing on.” A lot of creativity can be used to engage donors and their families, Beaudoin-Schwartz adds.