THE BLOG
01/06/2016 10:05 am ET Updated Jan 06, 2017

5 Ways to Be Charitable on a Budget

If you're short on time or money, it's still possible to help people in need -- and even develop a plan to give year-round.

It's worth taking a look at how Americans give. The Chronicle of Philanthropy's latest analysis of charitable giving based on state-by-state tax data noted that America's wealthiest Americans -- those earning $200,000 or above -- actually reduced the share of income they gave to charities by 4.6 percent from 2006 to 2012. At the same time, Americans earning less than $100,000 gave 4.5 percent more during the same time period. The philanthropy industry trade publication also noted that middle- and lower-income Americans increased their charitable giving over the period even if they earned less on average than they did in 2006.

Wherever you are on the income scale, there's always a way to be generous to others in need without damaging your own budget. Generally, if money is tight, give your time. And if both time and money are tight, you can get creative. Consider these steps first:

1. Start with an overview of your finances. It's certainly important to make charitable giving and helping others a lifetime habit, no matter your financial situation. But before you start writing checks or handing out cash to various individuals or groups, check your budget to determine whether you actually have extra money to spare for charitable donations in any form. And though the ability to get a tax deduction shouldn't define the help we give to others, check the IRS rules on charitable giving or consult with your qualified tax professional for any advice they can offer.

2. Make sure you're making a difference. If you're thinking of giving money to an organized nonprofit in your community, checking out their effectiveness is easier than ever before. Consider giving to organizations that operate efficiently because they'll be able to deliver more services and benefits to their target audience. Leading watchdog and charity analysis organizations like CharityNavigator.org, CharityWatch.org and Guidestar.org provide data on thousands of national, state and local charities and nonprofits. The Better Business Bureau also operates Give.org, a national charity database that notes local complaints and offers reports on accredited charities. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's Charity Scams website offers breaking news on illegal fundraising activities and best practices for evaluating charities and nonprofits year-round. Before you give, do an online search of the charity with the words "news," "complaint," or "arrest" in the search field just to make sure no unsavory information has turned up regarding the operation or giving practices of the organization. A local news story might offer signs of trouble or success long before the information reaches national clearinghouses.

3. Research what's needed. If you can't donate money and time is short, charities and nonprofits often list specific physical items they'll accept, from clothes and toys to food. It's very important to check with the charity either online or by phone to determine what they will and will not accept - donating the wrong items simply wastes staff and volunteer time. Also, charities can use volunteers in many capacities from direct client services to clerical and governance help. Ask questions about the volunteer opportunities available, and before you commit, make sure the volunteer assignment really fits your skill set and personality. Remember, charities really count on their volunteers and your enthusiasm for an assignment can help them keep their turnover to a minimum. Some organizations may also have travel-based service missions that can provide charitable travel opportunities where you do onsite work building shelters or assisting with other onsite projects -- a way to do good while seeing the world. In recent years, vehicle donations have become a way for taxpayers who itemize to get a tax deduction in exchange for a donated car, boat, motorcycle, truck or other vehicle that addresses a particular charity need.

4. See if your employer will match your donation. Even if your cash donation is modest, some employers can make your contribution go farther if they have a matching gifts program. If you're unsure whether your employer does this, check with your human resources department or benefits manager. Also, major international nonprofits as well as charitable organizations in your community might maintain online databases of employer matching gift programs to make it easier for individuals to boost the size of their gift overall, so check first.

5. Go micro. If you have family members or kids who want to get involved, ask them if they'd be willing to participate in direct service, fundraising activities or matching gifts to the charity of your choice - essentially creating your own private matching gift program. You might also consider a particular nonprofit's organized crowdfunding efforts as long as you've properly evaluated the charity and made sure any online crowdfunding efforts are secure. You might also consider giving your old technology to charity, but make sure you don't give away your valuable data in the process. Still short on cash and want to help? Pick up the phone or email or text the charity and ask if they accept small items or in-kind services that help them keep their doors open. Ideas include gift cards (including ones with unused balances), office supplies, stamps or food for board meetings or technology services. If you have a side business writing, fixing computers or designing websites, offering such services for free might also be a good way to spread the word to future paying customers. You'll also learn something about how charities and nonprofits actually operate -- an added bonus.

Bottom line: You don't have to be rich to make a difference. There are worthy organizations and causes in need year-round. If cash is at a minimum, use your creativity to create maximum benefit for groups that serve the less fortunate.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.