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Say Auld Lang Syne to Five Misconceptions About Charitable Giving

A few weeks back, my Money Under 30 colleague (and Chicago homie) Maria LaMagna wrote How to Donate Your Money Sensibly about charitable giving during the holidays. To be sure, giving is still on a lot of people’s minds, though the focus changes somewhat after Christmas Day. As the end of the year approaches, many people ponder last-minute charitable gifts as a way to take a bite out of what they’ll owe Uncle Sam on their 2012 taxes.

Perhaps you’re racing to make that December 31 deadline, considering whether you can afford a small gift even though you’re feeling broke this year, or looking ahead to some giving resolutions for 2013. In either case, these five misconceptions about charitable giving have dogged many folks with the best of intentions. Read on, and learn how to become a giver whose money makes maximum impact in the months and years ahead.

1) “With so many charities, it’s hard to check out who does a good job.”

A few highly publicized stories over the years have raised people’s suspicions over who uses their funds wisely. United Way, for example, suffered a huge blow in 1995 when its longtime president, William Aramony, was jailed for defrauding the organization out of more than $1 million, which he used to fund multiple affairs and a lavish lifestyle.

How can you discern which charities deserve your support? Consult Charity Navigator before you start giving. Right at the top of the website, you’ll see a search engine where you can enter the name of a charity. We entered United Way, and Charity Navigator pulled up dozens of local chapters. Checking the Heart of Missouri United Way, for example, you’ll see a wealth of information on how the non-profit spends its money. It earns only 47.19 out of 70 points for its combined financial score and accountability/transparency score. By checking Charity Navigator, you’d know that while this isn’t a terrible place to send your money, it’s not the best, either.

2) “Any gift to a charitable organization is tax deductible.”

Maria’s column stressed the need to get your taxes in order when it comes to charitable giving. Lucky for me I’m the younger brother of Joe Carlozo, a Baltimore-based CPA. The website for Carlozo & Co. lists an exhaustive guide to what’s deductible, what isn’t, and what falls somewhere in between. For example, if you donate 100 hours of service to a legitimate charity, none of that translates into a tax deduction. And if you pay $50 to attend a church fundraising dinner, only $35 of that is deductible if the church determines the value of the dinner to be $15.

Need more info? This IRS page includes eight tips for deducting charitable contributions.

3) “There’s no such thing as a perfect charity.”

Toys for Tots has been around a long time, so it’s no wonder you might take it for granted. But here’s what you likely didn’t know: Toys for Tots is run by the U. S. Marine Corps Reserve. That means Marines are involved in coordinating local toy campaigns in more than 700 communities covering all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

It also means the program is run with Marine-like efficiency. Toys For Tots spends 97 percent of its donations on toys, books and gifts, and has earned 4-star ratings from Charity Navigator every year since 2005. You can donate online via credit card, or visit the website to learn more about local toy collection centers. The toys go to disadvantaged kids of all kinds. Perfect? Perhaps not — but it’s about as close as you can get.

4) “Giving by the rich has always sustained charities, especially during the Recession.”

So you would think. But the highly respected Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that  giving by people with incomes of $200,000 or more fell by $31 billion from 2007 to 2009. Compare that figure to giving by people who earned much less. Those with incomes under $100,000 dropped their giving by a total of just $4 billion in the same period. So if you give to charity and earn less than $100,000, pat yourself on the back: Your generosity helped keep some charities out of peril. And if you make that much but haven’t made a giving commitment, there’s no better time than now to step forward.

5) “I’m too broke/poor/stressed out to give.”

Nonsense. If you’re under 30 and reading this, chances are excellent you want to prosper. Take it from someone who has rubbed elbows with wealthy, generous philanthropists as a function of writing about finance: Prosperity begins with an attitude. If you think you’re too broke, poor, or extended to give, then guess what? You’re right. But it’s hard to imagine how any of us can feel prosperous thinking like that, either.

If it’s a matter of time or convenience, many charities can auto deduct from your bank account. The online paperwork in most instances takes about 15 minutes.

On the other hand, if you think the small amount of money you have to give can’t possibly make a dent, I can sympathize. That’s where the wonder of charitable giving kicks in: When you give to a charity, church or non-profit, it not only changes the world around you, but the world within you. Giving is a muscle to exercise, and it’s my experience that cheerful givers also boast unusual strength, resilience and an ability to count their blessings. What a way to set the stage for bigger things, and not just financially.

In fact, you can be a bold giver. If you feel in that direction in 2013, check out the website Bolder Giving. It tells some amazing stories of people who’ve made outrageous commitments to give, and it has fans in Bill and Melinda Gates, whose foundation offered Bolder Giving a three-year matching grant to reach a much wider audience. Cruise the website and learn how giving changed the lives of givers and recipients alike.

We stand at the cusp 2013 not quite sure if we’ll fall off a fiscal cliff, or soar to post-Recession heights. I’d submit that while uncertain financial circumstances can affect us all, you can rise above, no matter the circumstances. In the quest to do good with your money, let no bad news stop you.

About Lou Carlozo

Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at feedbacker@aol.com, or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).

Comments

  1. Another misconception: It is better to donate to a specific action/drive. If you trust a charity with your money, donate to their general fund so the charity can allocate it most efficiently.

    I admire Doctors Without Borders a lot, because when many disasters strike, they are honest when they reach the point they cannot use additional donor money effectively and refuse further donations for that. But when I donate to their general fund, they can prepare better for the next emergency that comes.

  2. This may just be my blunder, but earlier this year I realized that charitable giving doesn’t pay down my tax burden, but actually lowers my taxable income… I’m 22 and I never learned this properly until my first job ; )