The Giving Season

12/16/2016 02:59 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2016

This time of year I dread opening my mailbox. Just after a wave of Thanksgiving “feed the hungry” appeals, year-end donation requests begin. “3 to 1 match, triple your gift;” “Can we count on you again this year?”

This is when I – a solo senior who associates “1%” with the milk I drink – envy Warren Buffet, Bill Gates and others who can give on the scale needed to eradicate diseases, alleviate suffering and alter the course of climate change. Here’s my dilemma:

I care. My heart goes out to sub-Saharan African women starting micro-businesses to move from subsistence to some semblance of security. And to women in my community – refugees from war-torn countries - reminding me of my grandparents’ flight to freedom. Beyond shelter and sustenance, they need training so they can make their way in this new world. How can I turn away from organizations helping them achieve self-reliance?

But what about the environment? Is there a more pressing problem? Should I give to organizations bringing lawsuits to rein in corporate criminals? Or valiant organizations fighting to preserve and protect pristine waterways, the rain forest, or the dwindling population of bees threatening our food supply? Should I give locally, to community-driven health and welfare initiatives or to interfaith organizations forging coalitions when many feel threatened because of their religion or ethnicity? Or stop supporting defenders of civil and human rights? How to choose?

Appeals arrive daily adding to the array awaiting my attention. Some come from organizations I’ve supported for years. How can I refuse the American Heart Association when I see their progress; if my dad had lived now instead of the 1960s a bypass could have changed his fate and mine. And to combat the misery of malignancy, is the American Cancer Society the best bet or M.D. Andersen in Houston, where so many people I know got the help they needed to survive and thrive? The Alzheimer’s Association is a definite “yes.” I know the heartbreak of seeing the ravages of that disease and understand the urgent demands of demographic trends.

Sometimes I feel that my meager donations are a drop in the bucket. Still, if every small donor felt that way, fragile, raise-the-budget-or-die organizations would shrivel or close their doors. So I weigh the fates of war orphans against wounded veterans, and endangered animals against abandoned dogs and cats, and give what I can. Considering that over 70% of all charitable giving comes from individuals, and the average family gave about $2000 to charity last year, I believe my modest offerings matter. Now crowd-funding and microloans multiply the impact of small investments in worthy causes.

Here’s my strategy: I give to entrepreneurial organizations that take aim at the root of the problem rather than the symptoms - DC Central Kitchen rather than a soup kitchen because they turn food waste into meals for hungry families and train down-and-out individuals for jobs – even careers - in the culinary arts. That kind of break-the-cycle venture wins my support. Ditto for organizations that celebrate the wisdom, support the growth and engage the talents of elders rather than “help” the elderly compensate for deficits.

I toss requests promising, “gift enclosed,” or offering gifts for each donor level (from tote bags to getaway weekends); those smack of paid fundraisers who rake off the lion’s share of the money. And I opt for “sustaining” gifts, even if it’s a few dollars a month, because I know how costly it is – in precious staff time and pricey marketing campaigns - for non-profits to reach out to me and all their past donors year after year. I check Charity Navigator to see how much of my gift will go to the cause and how much to overhead, helping me separate the lean from the bloated. I give to staff-driven rather than all-volunteer efforts because to stay the course, a non-profit requires a skilled leader and core staff to develop programs, partnerships and funding, train and guide volunteers, and manage a non-profit business.

Still, I’m left with impossible choices: The Birthing Project, pairing pregnant teens with a “Sister-Friend” to guide them through pregnancy and the baby’s first year, measuring annual success in the hundreds, or Planned Parenthood, offering reproductive health care and information to millions. As a charter member, can I ignore requests from the National Museum of Women in the Arts or the National Women’s History Museum?

So please Santa, send millions of dollars down my chimney. I promise not to blow it on designer clothes, cruises, or a palatial penthouse. Let me have the luxury of giving lavishly to worthy organizations preventing needless suffering; jump-starting squelched, sidelined lives; ensuring infants and children healthy hopeful starts; and enriching the human experience with joyful learning, uplifting art, and enlightening, painstakingly-preserved historical treasures.

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