Become a philanthropist!

Jamakaya

You don’t have to be a fat cat like Bill Gates to join one of the most admired fraternities around: philanthropists.

Since I work as a fundraiser and am painfully aware of how budget cuts are devastating human services, here’s a personal pitch along with some tips for being a smart, effective donor.

For those of us with jobs, the quickest way to give is to respond to the fall workplace giving campaigns of United Way and Community Shares that are sponsored by many employers. Government employees have additional options.

Workplace campaigns allow you to make a onetime donation or a continuing pledge that will be deducted from your paycheck and sent directly to the charitable campaign. A “donors choice” option allows you to specify which group will be the recipient of your donation, although a minimum dollar amount or other criteria may be required.

Some employers are willing to match your gift, so make sure you ask for any extra form that’s necessary to process that match. It’s a great way to double the impact of your donation.

Milwaukee’s Cream City Foundation and Madison’s New Harvest Foundation, which fund a variety of LGBT services, are members of Community Shares of Greater Milwaukee and Community Shares of Wisconsin, respectively.

In the absence of a workplace campaign, you can always contribute directly to a foundation or nonprofit whose work you like. Some donors prefer this route because it cuts out the “middleman,” reducing processing costs and maximizing the benefit to the targeted charity.

Guidestar.org is an excellent online resource you can use to check on the fiscal integrity and funding priorities of organizations you want to support. Guidestar allows you to search for non-profits and access their annual IRS forms.

On the IRS 990 form (section IX), charities must list their management, fundraising and program expenses. Management and fundraising should not rise above 20 percent. In fact, efficiently run groups often keep that percentage as low as 8-12 percent, which means the percentage they spend on actual programs to help their clients or community may be as high as 88-92 percent.

Foundations are required to attach a list of the charities they have given grants to in that reporting year. This is a handy way to learn whether the foundation’s giving is simpatico with your own interests and, if you represent a nonprofit, whether your group matches their priorities and should apply for a grant.

No matter how much you donate, you have the right to communicate with that charity to ask them about their programs or for an annual report. If they have their act together, they are likely to cultivate you in return and try to engage you in the organization in other ways, which leads to a final point.

You don’t need money to be a philanthropist. Really. Volunteers are as valuable to nonprofit agencies as money. There are dozens of tasks to be accomplished, from mailings to event staffing to IT support. Volunteer labor frees paid staff to focus more on core services. If you have extra time, let the group know your interests and have them assign you to a volunteer gig where you’ll be engaged and make a difference.

I don’t think philanthropy can or should ever substitute for our government’s duty to respond to basic human needs. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a charitable impulse, and these days we all need to pitch in any way we can.