Cheap, easy ways to give back

Cheap, easy ways to give back | George Rose /Getty Images

It’s that time of year when doing good is en vogue. Salvation Army bell-ringers greet shoppers. Volunteers line up to serve food to the less fortunate. And local fire stations make calls for donations.

While it seems as if corporations make the biggest donations, it’s everyday Americans who keep charities afloat. In 2015, charitable giving totaled $373.25 billion, with $264.58 billion of that coming from individuals, according to the Giving USA Foundation. That’s an increase in current dollars of 4.1 percent for total giving and 3.8 percent in individual donations over 2014.

You don’t have to have the wealth of Bill Gates to make a difference; every little bit helps when it comes to charitable donations.

Here are some easy ways to give back on a budget.

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Say ‘yes’ at the store

Say 'yes' at the store | gpointstudio/

You have likely encountered this request before: As the checkout clerk rings up your purchases at the drugstore, he or she asks if you want to donate $1 to a charity ranging from cancer research to feeding hungry children. Next time you’re asked, say yes.

“These charitable donations help to provide much-needed health care services and to heighten awareness,” says Walgreens spokesman Jim Cohn.

While you’re walking the aisles in the store, toss a can or two of soup or beans in your cart. Many supermarkets help organizations host canned-food drives at various times during the year by placing a bin at the entrance. After checking out, drop the cans in the bin as you leave. Coupons can help these food donations go even further.

And let’s not forget about when you are waiting in line scanning that National Enquirer, or while you are waiting and eyeing that Snickers bar; check to see if there’s a donation jar by the register. Local charities or neighborhood fundraisers often place donation jars there. By tossing in some spare change, you’re helping a cause that has fewer resources and a limited marketing reach. Of course, you can always choose a bigger charity like the Ronald McDonald House, which has donation containers at McDonald’s registers, a perfect place to drop the change from your Big Mac combo meal.

Take a swipe for charity

Take a swipe for charity | John Giustina/Getty Images

Use your plastic for the power of good. One way to begin is by signing up for a credit card or debit card that gives back.

Find out if your bank offers a credit or debit card tied to a cause.

There are some rewards credit cards that have a feature allowing you to donate a portion or all of your rewards or points to your favorite charity. Call your issuer to find out what your options are.

Make a change with change

Make a change with change | Vstock LLC/Getty Images

That jingling you hear is not reindeer, but all the change in your pockets. Before it ends up between the sofa cushions, pull out an old piggy bank or pickle jar and collect it for a week, month or a whole year, says James Yunker, president and CEO of The Yunker Group, a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and past chairman of Giving USA.

Get the family involved. At the end of the specified time, exchange the change for bills and donate to the charity of your choice. (Call your local bank to see if it exchanges coins without a fee, or visit a Coinstar machine to make a donation to one of the charities it sponsors.)

If you don’t feel like lugging change around, pull out the few bucks you would spend every day on a coffee from Starbucks, Yunker says, and take that to a charity at the end of one month.

And what about that $2.36 left on a gift card you’ll probably never use? Donate it to charity, says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for online nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator. Call up your cause of choice and ask whether it takes gift cards. For example, an underfunded school might benefit from a Best Buy or Staples gift card, while a homeless shelter may be helped by a supermarket or clothing store card.

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Change the world, techie style

Change the world, techie style | Plume Creative/Getty Images

If you often check your cellphone, use it to make a change. Many local, national and international charities accept donations of $5 to $10 via text message. The donation is added on to your cellphone bill. To learn if your favorite charity accepts text donations, check the running list on the Mobile Giving Foundation’s website.

And while you’re catching up with friends on Facebook or Twitter, check for charity deals you can share with them. There are multiple websites that donate money, food or supplies for every click you give them on their site.

Donate yourself

Donate yourself | Monkey Business Images/

Don’t think you can afford even a little bit this year? Instead of money, donate time. Cook meals at a local homeless shelter. Foster rescued cats or dogs. Even something as simple as raking leaves or shoveling snow for an elderly neighbor makes the world a better place and sets a good example, Yunker says.

If you have a particular skill, look for a charity that might be able to benefit from that, says Bob Ottenhoff, former president and CEO of GuideStar, which keeps a comprehensive database on charities.

If you’re a writer, perhaps you can help pen grant letters. If you’re a computer tech, try upgrading a nonprofit’s server. Retired executives can help tweak business plans for struggling organizations. Websites such as and help pair volunteers with appropriate opportunities.

“It’s a wonderful way to tap into the experience and expertise from people who have had wonderful careers but are looking for something more meaningful,” says Ottenhoff, who currently is president and CEO of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

Last, give the gift of life by giving blood. The American Red Cross has a blood drive locator on its website that’s searchable by ZIP code.

More bang for your buck

More bang for your buck | Lilly Roadstones/Getty Images

You know what goes even further than $1? Two dollars. Multiply your donation by looking for matching donations. Many companies will match their employees’ donations dollar for dollar or even more, says Miniutti. Typically, the only requirement is easy paperwork, so the company can confirm the charity’s 501(c)(3) tax status and the employee’s donation.

“It’s the perfect way to give more by giving less,” Miniutti says.

If you’re interested in giving overseas, then you’ll be happy to know the dollar you can spare will still make a big difference in poorer countries, says Holden Karnofsky, co-executive director at charity research website GiveWell. For example, a nickel is enough to provide a child who is sick with diarrhea with a lifesaving packet of nutrients, according to the GiveWell website, which has researched and identified the best-performing charities so you don’t have to.

Another way to make a contribution go further is to pool money together from a group. Ask family and friends to donate to a charity in lieu of gifts for a birthday, anniversary or holiday, Yunker says. Or, collect $5 from office mates to sponsor a hungry child for a year or buy holiday gifts for a family in need in your own community.

What to remember

What to remember | Minerva Studio/

Even if you’re just donating $1, giving back should be purposeful and relevant to you, not an afterthought. Make sure you back the charity’s mission and the recipients of its good work.

Look into how it accomplishes its mission and what its results are, says Ottenhoff. For example, if an organization is feeding the homeless, it should be able to tell you how many people it feeds every night and how that compares with last year, he says.

You should also be able to find a nonprofit’s financials to make sure it’s healthy and not squandering donations, Miniutti says. Charity Navigator, GiveWell and GuideStar all are resources for that.

Last, if you itemize your taxes, make sure to get a receipt, which should spell out which organization got the donation, the date of the gift, the amount of money donated or the description of the property that was given. Usually, it’s up to the donor to place a value on any donated items.

“It’s a nice benefit,” Yunker says. “But we find (that) people give to charity to feel good and make a difference.”

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