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Finding the right charity

A short guide to your most important philanthropic decision

By Darin Bruins, Senior Financial Advisor, RRC, CFP 3 May 2024 4 min read

finding the right charity

There’s arguably no more important decision for a philanthropist to make than what charitable cause or causes to support. Our time and our money are both finite resources. The number of charities asking for both can seem infinite.

So what’s a philanthropist to do?

This is a short guide to making this choice based on my experience after more than 15 years of practice as a financial advisor focused on helping people maximize their gifts.


Step 1: Start with “why.”

The motivational speaker Simon Sinek’s famous advice to start with “why” is highly applicable here. Alignment of values is the foundation of any serious long-term relationship, including those between charities and philanthropists. Think about what you value most and what charities are champions of those values.


Step 1a: Don’t be afraid to think small.

Another early step I like to nudge my clients towards is getting off the beaten path a bit when considering charities. Many big charities do great work. They also have big stories and (relatively) big marketing budgets.

But the world of charities is vast. Many have no marketing budgets at all. A bit of legwork may be required, but the dividends on a bit of digging here can be vast. You can find a charity that truly aligns with your vision and values. And getting a seat at the table to learn and grow with the charity, if you’re so inclined, is much easier at a small charity than a large one. When there are fewer voices in the room it’s much easier to be heard.


Step 2: On beyond admin costs.

I often see early philanthropists focus closely on the admin costs charities incur to do their work. This is understandable but not always the most important consideration. Admin costs are generally easy to see on financial statements. But they seldom tell the full story of a charity’s efficiency. Administration costs include people and their jobs operating within the charity’s mandate to do their work. Eliminating people and jobs is often not conducive to effective charity work.

This is not to say that all charities or all admin costs are equal. But any philanthropist should be prepared to dig a bit deeper into the finances and ask good inquisitive questions about the operations of any charity they are thinking of supporting.


Step 3: Consider giving more than money.

All charities need money. But all charities crave relationships with supporters. Supporters do more than cut a cheque once every so often. They give regular amounts at predictable intervals.

They also give more than money. They volunteer their time, whether by sitting on a board or working in a warehouse. They evangelize the charity’s work across their social networks. They might consider naming the charity in their will or as a beneficiary of their insurance policies.

Picking a charity to which you’d donate your time and talent is a great way to maximize the impact of your philanthropy. You’ll learn more about the work of the charity first hand, which can grow your own understanding of the challenges it faces and the solutions being developed.


Step 4: Look at their finances and their goals.

Before you commit to supporting a charity, it’s important to review their financial information in detail. Finding this information should be easy—if it’s not, that’s a major red flag. Your financial advisor will be able to help you interpret their reports, if needed.

You should also get a sense of how the charity measures its own success. You should be able to find copious information about their goals and objectives, which should be linked to measurable outcomes. The old “SMART” guide for goals (they should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) is a good guide here.

Finally, you should also assess how the charity communicates and engages with its supporters.


Step 5: Try to commit for the long term.

I encourage my clients to think of their relationships with the charities they support like building railroads—it’s a lot wiser to change the direction of tracks that are not yet built than it is to rip up the old ones and rebuild in a new direction.

I’ve seen many times over my career the impact that commitment has on both sides of the philanthropist-charity relationship. Committing to a charity for the long term will not only deepen the impact of your gift, it will also deepen the satisfaction you feel from your support.

Of course, if things truly go off the rails, it might be time to look for a different charity. But you should think of that as a last resort, and have this idea in mind when you first go looking. I am happy to connect with you to discuss your situation and respond to questions you may have.

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