Your guide to philanthropic giving in Charlotte.
You might have heard of The Society Guide last fall when their striking Giving Book landed on your doorstep. Started locally by two women immersed in the nonprofit world, they assembled a rockstar group of Advisory Board members to help bring their vision to life: to be a connecting source between highly effective nonprofits and those in the community with the means and heart to support them.
Their ultimate goal? To increase philanthropic giving locally. Fulfilling that goal rests partly in strengthening nonprofits, increasing their collaboration, and reducing the redundant demand on donors.
Here, they share what they have learned about best practices for philanthropic planning.
Have you ever come home from the grocery store armed with bags upon bags of goods, but when you go to make dinner that night, realize you don’t have all the components to make any one complete dish? You spent all that time and money at the store, but remain shy of just a few forgotten ingredients to create anything from it all.
Unplanned charitable giving can often feel like that. You’ve given all over the place but are left wondering if any of it mattered.
As a community, a portion of our giving will always be reactionary – causes that we contribute to in support of friends and colleagues. But when it comes to our primary, personal charitable giving, the more thought and intention that goes into planning those gifts, the more rewarding it tends to be for the giver, and the more impactful for the nonprofit.
When it comes to your philanthropy, before you determine how much you’re going to give and where, ask yourself:
What do I want to accomplish?
Perhaps you’re passionate about education. What is it about education that is important to you? Where is that belief not being actualized in this community? Who is being left out? Drill down and define a goal that you want your contribution to move towards. You and your dollars alone might not fulfill the goal right away, or even in this lifetime. But the idea is that each dollar moves you and the community closer and closer to that goal.
Once you’ve determined what it is you want to accomplish, look back at where you gave the last two to three years. Did the recipients of those gifts help move you toward these goals? Would giving more to fewer organizations been helpful? Of the groups that you gave to, what results did they have as an organization? Of the groups you’ve given to for a while, have they been able to quantify growth in results or constituencies served?
We are unapologetic, fierce advocates of giving to local nonprofits, primarily because we believe it to be both vital and most impactful to give to our neighbors and neighborhoods. But also, local organizations tend to touch recipients and causes more directly than national organizations whose missions deploy significant funds for advocacy to change policies or for sustaining a larger footprint.
Once you’ve identified what you wish to accomplish, determining which group(s) will help you do that can be daunting; particularly in Charlotte where sometimes it seems as if there are a dozen different nonprofits for each and every cause.
There are three methods we have found for determining where to give:
1) Ice or Surgery?
What is more valuable to you: Organizations that are providing immediate and tangible aid to the person or cause? Or, organizations working to eradicate or solve higher level issues that eliminate the need for aid?
If you look at your cause as a knee injury, most organizations are either applying ice in order to give relief and keep the person going day to day, or, are performing surgery in hopes to eliminate the injury entirely.
Perhaps you are passionate about helping children and families affected by pediatric cancer. You might choose to contribute to an organization like Mitchell’s Fund, which provides financial assistance to families in the throws of the crisis and devastation of battling cancer with their child. Or you might choose to attack the issue from a higher level and invest in pediatric cancer treatment and research through an organization like Carolinas Healthcare Foundation to help to move towards a cure.
Perhaps it is more congruent with your defined goals to break up your contributions and make investments from both angles.
It might be of critical importance to you that you invest in organizations attempting to do both. Together We Feed for instance, is working within our schools to eliminate barriers to upward mobility by both addressing immediate essential student needs of food and clothing, as well as providing programs for long-term success such as parenting education, mentoring, and career path discovery.
2) Seek out “on the ground” feedback
Friends, colleagues, and community leaders can make great suggestions about organizations they feel are doing great work. But one of the best ways to find out about a nonprofit’s effectiveness is to inquire with those they are serving. When evaluating whether an organization is a good fit for our Giving Book, we look for “on the ground” confirmation of their impact. We don’t get this from the people the organization chooses to provide a testimonial at their event or on their website. We solicit confidential, direct feedback from those immersed in the constituency they serve.
If an organization is helping to serve homeless children for instance, inquire with a teacher or guidance counselor in one of our Title One schools. Looking to support a group working with special needs children, mental health initiates, or substance abuse programs? Inquire with professionals who might refer patients to their programs. We have always received either enthusiastic praise and confirmation of impact, or blatant feedback of ineffectiveness or broken promises.
3) Demand transparency, and honor it
Look at an organization’s public IRS form 990, which outlines its governance and detailed financial information. Many organizations have this document right on their website. You can also obtain them from websites like GuideStar.org, which automatically pull them from IRS filings. If an organization’s 990 isn’t there, it wasn’t filed. (Note: in cases of small organizations with less than $200,000 in gross receipts, they may not be required to file a full 990 report.)
If you see something that feels out of whack or excessive, ask the organization for a better understanding of the numbers. If this makes you uncomfortable, have your financial advisor make these inquiries, either on your behalf or anonymously. Organizations that are operating ethically and at highest efficiency will be forthcoming and open. Those who skirt around the questions or don’t respond to requests for greater transparency and clarity have answered your question. Move along.
It is also of great importance that we acknowledge that organizations are no different than businesses—they require investments in infrastructure, (often referred to by the unpleasant term, overhead) to be successful and to survive.
When dining out, it would be preposterous to demand to only pay for the cost of the food on our plate. There are costs for the restaurant and its utilities and furnishings, the people preparing and serving the food, and activities to bring traffic into the establishment so that it can continue to exist. If we turned our nose up at all of these costs and refused to contribute towards them, then we’d no longer be dining out. We’d be back at the grocery store.
We should all hold nonprofits and their leadership accountable to fulfilling their missions in the most direct and cost effective way possible. But this cannot be accomplished without investments in overhead.
In an article out of Stanford’s Social Innovation Review titled, “The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle”, the authors’ research concluded that, “ Organizations that build robust infrastructure—which includes sturdy information technology systems, financial systems, skills training, fundraising processes, and other essential overhead—are more likely to succeed than those that do not.”
Nonprofit programs and services cease to exist without the people who deliver them. Quite often we hear the word “staff” and immediately think only of people concerned with the administrative and business operations of the nonprofit. But the “staff” is also comprised of the hands on deliverer of the cause at hand: the social worker assigned to the abused child; the veterinarian saving the animal; the artist teaching or creating.
If we as a community demand that nonprofits operate in vacuums of scarcity and starvation, we are doing so at the peril of those they are serving.
Overhead can be an unsavory investment, but what if we shifted our perspective and put line items to this test: is this a capacity builder? If you believe in the cause and believe the organization’s delivery system to be effective, building capacity is something we should get behind.
Utilize your advisor
Finally, and perhaps most importantly because it is so often overlooked, your financial advisor can be an excellent resource in this planning process. Philanthropy can feel so personal that most advisors won’t broach the subject unless prompted. Once you do, you might be surprised to discover the vast means in which they and the firm can assist you.
Whether you give directly from your personal income or from your business, there are many opportunities to leverage assets such as real estate, retirement plans, life insurance, or illiquid assets to help support nonprofits. If you financial advisor is clear on your philanthropic goals, they might be able to present you with options for achieving them in less commonly thought of ways.
We are blessed to live in a community that values and engenders generosity. As such, there are many resources at your disposable to help you make the most out of your generosity, at no cost to you. We hope to be one of them.
Amanda Pagliarini Howard
Erica Flamand Shugg
Kathy Rowan, APR
A search tool to discover local nonprofits, volunteer opportunities, and lists of products and goods they need to support their missions.
Foundation for the Carolinas
Foundation For The Carolinas serves more than 2,500 individual, nonprofit and corporate fundholders throughout our 13-county region. They provide comprehensive back office support for your grantmaking needs, as you recommend where your philanthropic dollars will be gifted.
Director of Center for Personal Philanthropy
Nonprofit research tools
BBB Wise Giving Alliance – give.org
Photos provided by Community School of the Arts, Playing for Others, and Sustain Charlotte.