Smart guide to charitable giving

Wed May 12, 2010 3:42pm EDT
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By Linda Stern

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans are as charitable as ever, but they are changing the way they give money.

Think of the record-setting donations -- many of them texted by cellphone -- after the earthquake in Haiti at the beginning of this year. Or the number of spring races and athletic events held to benefit one (often personalized) charity or another.

Fidelity just reported that its Charitable Gift Fund, which allows investors to set up their own private charitable funds, had its biggest quarter ever in the first quarter of 2010, with $270 million in new contributions, more than double the level from the first quarter of 2009.

It's good that people are coming out of the recession with their generous impulses intact, and it's good that people are thinking of new and innovative ways to give. But too much of the charitable impulse is still just that -- an impulse -- and can result in too much junk mail and too little impact.

This is a great time of year to plot your charitable strategy for the rest of 2010. That way you'll not be simply reactive in your giving. And you won't have to rush around in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas trying to do a year's worth of good works.

-- Focus. Give bigger gifts to fewer charities. This enables your gifts to have a larger impact, and it also allows you to escape the problem of getting too many solicitations from too many groups. Difficult as it might be, try to choose one main cause from each of two or three categories. For example: one main medical charity, one arts organization, one social issue.

-- Segment. That isn't to say you should shut down your niece or neighbor when they do their charitable walk/run/bike/silent auction. Just consider those obligatory donations as separate -- or a small part -- of your overall giving plan. You might set aside a certain amount for that category of giving.

-- Think through the organizations carefully. Consider size: The small, personal targeted organization can seem more responsive to changing needs, and have less bulky overhead. But a big group has more resources to put your gift to work.   Continued...