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Creating a Philanthropy Plan

If you’re an Animal Person, you probably give a bunch of money to animal causes each year. But do you know where that money goes? Do you have a formula for how much you give? How many organizations do you give to and why?

I’ve been in the philanthopy business for quite some time, and people often ask me where they allot their funds, and how much they should give, and the short answer is: I don’t know. You have to make your own plan. What I can do is help you do that by providing some guidance.

  1. Decide, by the end of this year, how much money you will be giving NEXT year. This way, you go into the New Year with one less thing to worry about. When I say "how much," I’m referring to a percentage of your net income. If you don’t have a plan yet for this year, make one today. Decide what percentage of your net income you’ll be allocating to charitable causes. Most religions require tithing of 10% (and PS, they want that 10%). I like to give at least 20%, and also volunteer. Giving money and giving time are two completely different experiences, each with its own challenges.
  2. Decide where you are going to donate your money, but set aside a small amount (I don’t know what’s small for you), for unexpected charitable causes. For instance, last Christmas I was practically being stalked by the US Navy Veterans Association, and they wanted money to send care packages to US troops overseas. I couldn’t possibly tell you how much I detest this latest war. However, that has nothing to do with the kids overseas who are doing the best they can and (some of whom) think they’re serving a noble cause. I spoke with a manager from the call center, got a list of things in the package (no tobacco or porn, don’t worry), and gave $35 for a package worth $300. There’s no way I would’ve factored anything like this into my philanthropy plan, but because I allot some funds to an "unexpected donations" account, I was ready for it.
  3. Stick to your plan. You can’t be writing checks every time you open the mail. Another thing you can do if you get a piece of mail (or a call) from an organization not on your list, is to make a list for next year and add it to that.
  4. When choosing your organizations (or you can give it all to one), make sure their mission is something you agree with entirely. For instance, if your local shelter does a great job adopting out cats and dogs, but also euthanizes, and you’re not okay with that, you might want to find another shelter. Meanwhile, if your local no-kill warehouses animals for years in environments of deprivation, you might not want to give to them either. It’s your money, do your research.
  5. You can go to Guide Star and Charity Navigator for help choosing among many charities that work in the US and Internationally, although you should never make a decision solely on information you get from a website. If you can, volunteer your time (for instance, I do grantwriting and serve on boards), get to know an organization from the inside, and make your decision based partly on personal experience.
  6. If you’re giving large amounts, you can tell an organization where you want to put it. For instance, say you want to give to that kill shelter, but you don’t want to give to the killing part (hey, every program expense costs money). You can say, "I want my money earmarked for spaying and neutering." Sometimes you can do that with small donations, as well. Again, it’s your money. If you don’t have a perfect organization that you agree with entirely, ask them if you can give them funds for part of their program. (Yes, it all goes to the same organization, but we’re dealing with an imperfect situation here.)
  7. Here are some categories you might want to use for your philanthropy plan:
  • Nonhuman animals (and that can be separated into: advocacy, direct service, abolition, welfare, farm animals, vivisection, companion animals, wild animals, sports and entertainment, etc.)
  • Human animals (e.g., children, youth, childhood disease, adult disease, prisoners, civil liberties)
  • The environment (note that nearly all environmental organizations’ missions will at some point interfere with your animal mission if you’re an abolitionist, as most are in some way connected with conservation/management, and many test on animals.)
  • Religion (I’d want to know what the money is going to, exactly. If it goes to the maintenance of a temple, is that okay with you?)

So your plan might look like this (actually, this was my allocation last year): nonhumans-30%; humans-30%; the planet-30%; unexpected-10%.

Here are some other tips:

  • Pretend you have a $20 million family foundation to control. How would you allot the money? Doing a personal plan with less money is very similar, but with smaller dollar amounts. Take it seriously.
  • When you give to any organization that engages in lobbying, your donation dollars aren’t tax-deductible. I don’t consider those funds part of my philanthropy plan; they’re simply a purchase (it’s like I’m paying a fee for a really worthy service that I don’t physically benefit from, although I might benefit spiritually/existentially).
  • When you go to events, like the highfalutin stuff we have here in Palm Beach County practically every night of the week for four months, the price you paid for the ticket is NOT fully deductible, as you received something for your money (cocktails, food, a spectacular location, whatever. All that stuff costs money, and even if the event is fully sponsored, you still can’t deduct the entire amount. You’ll get a letter that tells you how much you can deduct later. If you want the biggest bang for your buck, don’t go to events–just give money. The $500 you paid to walk in the door quickly becomes $200. Think of events as opportunities to pay a bunch of money to go to a party rather than effective ways of helping your favorite causes.)
  • Here are two common bang-for-your-buck issues:
    • When you give to a huge, wealthy organization, and particularly one that doesn’t do direct service, you could be putting your money toward some nebulous idea of advocacy rather than actually helping someone. And the result is you might feel like you haven’t done much. Is your donation about how you’re making yourself feel, or about effectively helping a cause?
    • When you give to a small, direct service organization, you often know exactly whom you’ve helped, and how much, yet you might feel you’re not doing enough because the problem is so big. Is your donation about how you’re making yourself feel, or about effectively helping a cause?
  • When you are a large donor to a small organization, what happens if you don’t give them any more money? Do they have a plan to replace your dollars? What percentage of each of your organization’s funds was raised from individuals or private foundations? What percentage is from government grants? Check out their annual reports (most medium-large ones will have them posted on their websites, and you can always ask smaller organizations for theirs.) If you’re a funder who provides more than 20% of an organization’s budget, and it’s not a start-up, why haven’t they raised more money?

Finally, the funds you’re allocating for philanthropy should be taken out of your paycheck, just like your retirement money and your savings money, BEFORE you buy anything. They should be a fixed expense in your monthly budget. If you wait until the end of the month to give money, what does that say about your dedication to giving?

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