Whether it's a little or a lot of money, there are many ways to give. One of the most common ways is a direct gift to a charity or nonprofit, but such gifts are just the beginning.
Those who can afford to make a large donation can set up a donor-advised fund. 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. Once you set up the fund, where you give is up to you.
Much of the appeal of donor-advised funds is this flexibility. In the case of donor-advised funds administered by the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, 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 discretionary money 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 may 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.
Time -- your time -- is also one of those valuable assets. But with more than 25,000 nonprofit organizations in the Washington area that support a variety of causes, how can a would-be volunteer whittle down the choices? The Internet is one of the best resources for finding volunteer opportunities. The TouchDC Web site lists volunteer opportunities in almost a dozen categories -- animals and environment, education, 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.