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The holiday season is officially here, with just a month until the new year, and less than a month until Christmas Eve. It’s a time of year when many families are thinking about charitable giving and what organizations need help.

It’s also the time for holiday giving advice, and over the last few years, we’ve seen a push towards a more informed, personalized giving. We’ve been told to give strategically and to treat giving like a project, looking for outcomes. In general this isn’t a bad way to look at things, and can help in terms of deciding on a charity of choice, but it’s not about a return on investment.

Recently, the Globe and Mail came out with some holiday advice in terms of giving, as treating your gift like an investment, and focusing on the tax break you get as a result. And they included the idea that since businesses don’t always highlight personal stories in quarterly reports, charities shouldn’t either.

This is similar to the Kickstarter effect where charities are advised to show a real goal and bring people together to meet that goal. Not a bad idea, and often the big payoff of a number is a long-standing success metric for specific campaigns, especially around the holidays.

Here’s the problem: most of the charities who need your help don’t need one big thing. They need operating costs covered, they need additional space, they need to hire another resource, they need new plumbing, they need building repairs and maintenance, they need the things that every organization needs, and it’s not sexy.

A Focus on Things, not Service

Let’s use an example: a hospital in your area needs a new MRI machine. That piece of equipment comes with a price tag that can be easily turned into a goal for lots of people, who then get to say at the end ‘look, I helped get that machine!’ This is obviously useful and will help lots of people who need that machine. It’s an unqualified win for you, for the hospital and for the community. The perception is fantastic! People all helped to buy a new thing, and having that thing will help loads of people. And it comes with prestige to boot.

However. The same hospital also needs 12 additional beds for mental health care, a new admin hire to keep the outpatient clinic open late and two extra nurses. The hospital could wrap those things into a package and run a campaign to upgrade the mental health unit, but it will be harder to get people into the idea of donating funds to salaries and laundry service and other operating costs. So a good idea to get people interested is to tell stories about families helped by the unit. It’s not an ‘exemplary employee’ situation like you’d see in a business’s success report, it’s a preview of the real value an organization can offer.

Here’s the other perception problem:

It’s too easy to conflate the salaries of badly needed hires and increased hours of operation with ‘administration’ and assume it means that the organization that needs your donation isn’t properly funding ‘projects’ or ‘equipment.’ And I promise you, hospitals, libraries, women’s shelters and animal rescues need funds to stay open. Funding operating costs is incredibly important, and isn’t sexy in any way. But even worse, it can be seen as some kind of proof that the organization isn’t running well and can’t keep itself open. This is easy to deal with by looking for organizations that have been operating for a long time or have recently expanded.

Give to an organization.

Help the shelter that needs to increase their hours of operation. Buy a membership to a public art gallery. Spend on a day care who’s funding has been cut. Donate to a hospital’s general fund. Contribute to the YWCA’s urgent needs. If your budget includes global charities, find an organization in good standing with a long history of helping others. Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International come to mind.

One piece of advice from that same Globe and Mail article makes a lot of sense to me: volunteer your time to organizations you care about. If you work with them and see how things operate, you’ll get a strong sense of the values and commitment of the organization.

This season, use your gift to keep things moving. Find an organization you care about and fund their greatest need. Give the gift of staying open, expanding the offering, and of continuous service.

And remember, it’s a gift. Not a loan, it’s not a business plan. Give expecting nothing in return, and volunteer expecting only to improve your own community.

Happy Holidays!

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