"Try it. You'll like it," says Kae Dakin, president of Washington Grantmakers.
She is talking about first-timers pondering giving time and money to Washington area nonprofit organizations and charities. But newcomers first have to choose the nonprofits and charities in which to invest time and money. And that can be a bigger, more complicated decision than many people expect.
"There's a whole wide world of needs out there. Think about the things you value the most," Dakin advises. "What values would you like to see promoted?" Perhaps your family has been affected by cancer or you have a passion for women's issues or literacy, she suggests. Reflect on your own interests and personal experiences and then seek out those nonprofits and charities.
Whether you have a little or a lot of money, there are many ways to give financially. One of the most common ways, of course, is a direct gift to a charity or nonprofit, but direct gifts are just the beginning. Those who can afford to make a large donation can set up a donor-advised fund, the "hot thing in philanthropy," according to Kathy Whelpley, vice president of program and donor engagement at the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.
A donor-advised fund works like a bank account, except you only make donations; "withdrawals" go to the charities. Any contributions to the fund are tax-deductible, and once you have set up the fund, where and when you give is up to you. "You can take a long time to decide how to give the money away, or give it away quickly," Whelpley said. Much of the appeal of donor-advised funds is this flexibility.
In the case of donor-advised funds administered by the Community Foundation, the minimum opening balance is $10,000, and there is a yearly administrative fee equal to 1 percent of the account balance or $500, whichever is greater. The foundation serves as a private staff for its donors, advising them on which nonprofits are the best fit for their giving objectives, filing the necessary paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service and acting as an intermediary between donors who wish to remain anonymous and the nonprofits they wish to help. Other organizations also offer administration of donor-advised funds.
Another option is to form a "giving circle," a group of people who pool their funds and decide together where to make grants. Giving circles enable people with less money to donate to have a bigger impact on a particular issue, neighborhood or nonprofit. They can be informal affairs organized by a group of friends, or they can be administered through a community foundation.
Would-be donors should talk to their employers to see whether they offer programs for charitable donations. Many companies will match an employee's donations or the funds an employee raises for a nonprofit or charity. Some employers also make cash grants to organizations for which employees volunteer through a program called "Dollars For Doers." You might also be able to give through an annual work-sponsored campaign such as United Way.
If you prefer to do your research and donate over the Internet, www.guidestar.org is a good resource for information about a nonprofit's financials and mission. Washington Grantmakers also runs a Web site, www.touchdc.org, that allows you to make donations electronically with your credit card to thousands of nonprofits and charities in the area. Keep in mind that real estate, stock, insurance policies and other non-cash assets are also valuable donations for nonprofits.
With 23,000 nonprofit organizations in the Washington area that support a variety of causes, how can a would-be volunteer whittle down the choices? Siobhan Canty, president and chief executive of Greater DC Cares, echoed Dakin's advice about defining your parameters by deciding which issues you care about, where you want to volunteer geographically, which skills you want to use and how much time you can spend. "The best volunteer is one who has thought a lot about what is important to them in a volunteer experience," Canty said. "We want people to come back to the volunteer world, and the way to do that is to make sure it's a positive experience."
First-time volunteers have a lot of shared concerns and motivations. "People think about proximity, safety and the impact they're going to have. And they think a lot about being social with other volunteers and getting to know their communities in a deeper way," Canty said. Don't feel guilty if you tend to bounce from one nonprofit to another, she said. "We've had people find an organization . . . and immediately stick with them, and we've also had people who have worked with us for eight years who have continued to experience different organizations and volunteer different levels of time."
"People try out a lot of different things," Dakin agreed. "At certain times of your life, certain things are more interesting and compatible. . . . When you've just graduated from college, you want to get to know people, so you'd volunteer with a group."
The Internet is one of the best resources for finding volunteer opportunities. The TouchDC Web site lists volunteer opportunities in 11 categories -- animals, education, environment, housing, hunger, youth development, arts and culture, employment, health, human services and law and justice. TouchDC highlights five lesser-known nonprofits in each category, not the blue-chip nonprofits with the big public relations departments, but the ones that usually operate below the radar.
Canty suggested that would-be volunteers ask their neighbors which organizations are doing good work. "After-school programs, services for the elderly, and tutoring and mentoring programs exist in virtually every community," she said. High school and college students can ask their schools about volunteer programs, Canty said, and professionals can talk with co-workers and go along with them when they volunteer.
Companies are becoming more involved in their communities through volunteer days, programs that encourage employees to set aside work for a day and go out to do good as a group. Emily Rothberg, director of community involvement for the Central Atlantic region at Deloitte Consulting, helped marshal an army of volunteers for the company's first volunteer day last month. Seven hundred local Deloitte workers spent the day helping Goodwill set up a prospecting database and installing wireless Internet service at a Ronald McDonald House. "The idea is to try to go beyond one day of service," Rothberg said. "How can you spend one day and make a lasting impact?"
Dakin thinks most people volunteer or give because they were brought up that way. "It's part of their childhood. Whether it's trick-or-treating for UNICEF or selling Girl Scout cookies, they started at a very young age with the whole combination of volunteering and collecting and giving money." But even if you haven't been involved in charitable giving, it doesn't take much to get started. As Dakin said: "If you follow an organization or an issue, for very little money and some energy, you can have a big impact."