THE BLOG
11/26/2013 03:11 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

Transform Your Giving: Be an Everyday Philanthropist

I'm no Rockefeller, but I am an everyday philanthropist. Some call it "charity," some "donating," some respond when asked to sponsor a friend's half-marathon effort for a good cause. But in the grand scheme of things, what most of us can practice is everyday philanthropy. And if we begin to be more thoughtful and intentional in our giving, that personal philanthropy can reach new heights and have greater impact.

According to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, philanthropy is "the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people" or "goodwill to fellow members of the human race; especially : active effort to promote human welfare." The word's first modern use traces back to the early 1600s, and its Greek roots translate roughly to "love of people."

The United States has a culture of philanthropy, a proud tradition that is embedded in our generosity and our love of independence. Americans are among the most philanthropic people in the world, with over half the population donating money, volunteering time, or helping a stranger on a monthly basis. The majority of Americans give to religious and educational institutions to which they have an affiliation or commitment. Beyond that, individual philanthropy is typically directed to several major categories--social, environmental, and cultural. Not surprisingly, we have a large and vibrant nonprofit sector, with some 1.5 million nonprofit organizations rooted in our culture of entrepreneurship, innovation, critical thinking, and problem solving.

In this season of giving, season of gratitude--and season of spending and year-end tax deductions--there are many reasons to rethink your own role in giving to others. Here's how to transform your giving and practice everyday philanthropy.

How much? Set an annual philanthropy goal, and track it throughout the year. Set a goal that is just a bit of a stretch. If philanthropy is a personal value, then it should also be a real financial commitment. Once the giving goal is set, think about your philanthropic support in terms of large, medium, and small gifts. The actual size of your donations is all relative ($25, $500, $1,000, or way more) and depends on your giving goal, but you are a serious philanthropist now, and thinking in these terms helps you consider your strategy and impact.

The large gifts are to the nonprofits that are most important to you, and your large gifts should therefore be of a size to be relatively important to them. For these gifts, try to become a sustained donor, with an expected giving horizon of 3, 5, or 10 years. Medium-size donations are appropriate for other organizations that have captured your heart and your imagination. Your smaller gifts might be catalyzed by requests from friends and family for their causes because, if it's important to them, it's probably important to you--or at least the person is important to you. Sometimes small gifts, especially at this time of year, are driven by a fundraising appeal that struck just the right notes.

What matters? As an everyday philanthropist who has now determined an annual philanthropy goal, consider your priorities and values. Philanthropic acts allow you to put your money where your mouth is. And that feels true and authentic. Giving allows you to invest in your vision of the world--and to fuel the people and organizations that are driving us there. Think hard about your values. What are you most passionate about? What challenges in this world do you want to address? The factors are infinite, and some can be integrated, but it will require some soul-searching.

Engage your family around these considerations. The family Thanksgiving table is a great place to discuss both thanks and giving. By talking about what is important to each family member and to the family as a whole, your giving priorities will begin to emerge. And most wonderfully, in engaging the children at the table, the next generation of everyday philanthropists will be formed.

The issues you support may be driven by your heart or your mind or a combination of both. They will likely be grounded in your own experiences and worldview. Travels abroad, your children and grandchildren, or your love of nature. Your interaction with arts and culture. Your sense of justice and injustice. Your horizon--the local community or our global(ized) village. These considerations will factor into your choices, and while I have my own biases, there is no right answer. Enjoy this privilege as an everyday philanthropist.

Where to give? Finally, consider where you will give your now more meaningful philanthropic dollars. Which organizations share your vision and values? What are the nonprofits that have the mission, model, and results that inspire you? Is the leadership strong? Does its accountability and transparency gain your trust? You have probably already come across organizations like this in your life, but a little additional web research will solidify an informed giving decision.

At The Global Fund for Children, I am fortunate to integrate my values with my profession, and to direct philanthropic capital to grassroots organizations that improve the lives of the most vulnerable children around the world. I have taken that practice to my personal and family life, and I relish my role as an everyday philanthropist.

While your choices of where to donate may require a great deal of thought, the final step is action. Write your checks! Click the Donate button! It is incredibly fulfilling and empowering to give. And with these practices, it can be even more so. You are an everyday philanthropist.