8 Questions to Answer For Year End Charitable Giving

Lisa writes: Giving, it turns out, really is better than getting. In recent a New York Times article, researchers Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton explained that more money does not really make us happier and that it is what we do with our money that has the greatest impact on our happiness. Whether you are considering charitable giving of $25, $2,500 or $25,000, the questions you need to ask yourself are the same.  As we near year-end, the time to do so is now.

new york city, train station clock, Grand Central

Good philanthropy involves a little bit of research and a lot of compassion.  Great philanthropy involves asking ourselves some very hard questions.

1. Do you know why you want to give to this cause?  Why are you doing this?

This starting point is the place to ask the hard questions: what do you really care about and why? This is the moment to let go of so many of the “shoulds” that can dominate our lives.  It is the time to confront any childhood baggage head on and be true to yourself.  Your family may have always given to the local church but art may be what calls to you. This is the moment to be honest with yourself and to answer that call.

2. To be successful do you need stories or statistics, or perhaps both?

Many givers like to know the beneficiaries of their largesse.  They want a narrative that focuses on real lives and real stories to know that their giving has achieved its goal.  They do not want their charitable giving to be faceless.  Others want to know that their actions have had a measurable impact.  They want to see the before and after, not as a look on someone’s face but rather numbers on a spreadsheet.  There is nothing wrong with either approach, just make sure you know which one is yours.

3. Do you need to be expert, or at least highly knowledgeable in the area of your philanthropy?

For some, philanthropy is a way to delve into a world they have never known, be it healthcare, Africa or a local museum, and to learn right alongside their money. Others like to stay closer to home.

4. How soon do you want to see success?

We give heavily to causes like the cures for disease or the development of vaccines, that we know may not show results for decades.  As a donor, does this matter to you?  Many give to the arts or education, and the fulfillment of their charitable giving can be seen in the same calendar year that the check is cut.

5. Do you need leverage?

Is writing your check enough, or are you hoping to galvanize others with your effort?  The answer to this question speaks to how you make a donation to a cause.  If leverage is not one of your goals, then quiet or even anonymous giving is all that is needed.  But if you are looking to make a bigger splash, hoping that, perhaps, your efforts will inspire others, then what will be your strategy.  Press?  Social media?  Asking others in your community to give alongside you?  A matching challenge?

6. Who are you going to do this with and how do you need to take them into account?

Is this your money alone or is it family or marital resources?  Do you have parents, siblings or a spouse or partner who needs to be involved, at least to some degree, in the decision-making?  Do you want to include your children, either to educate them or because a stewardship responsibility will eventually fall to them?

7. Do you know what failure will look like for you?

If you don’t know what failure will look like you might find it and not recognize it.  Before you begin your giving endeavor, it would be worth defining success and failure.  At what point, what metric, what anecdote or story will you know that you have achieved what you set out to accomplish?  And perhaps more importantly, recognizing that giving is an investment, when will you know to cut your losses and walk away?

8. How high is your tolerance for imperfection and risk?

Giving money to your alma mater is safe.  Giving money to a group of researchers exploring new gene therapy or an experimental music group is not.  We each have a different tolerance level for risk, imperfection and mistakes.  Is this a place in life where you would like to take greater risk?  How is having “wasted” resources going to affect you?

Charitable giving is a deeply personal matter, complicated by expectations that surround us.  To find real success in our giving and the joy that comes with it, we need to answer some very hard questions and be true to those answers.

Lisa is the author of Be the Change (HarperCollins), in which she interviews and profiles some of the world’s most exceptional philanthropists.



  1. says

    Thank you for very good points here. I like and try to give locally. I find it helpful, also, to give with little expectation..I mean, the research is important but like your fourth bullet mentions…do I need to see success or a finish line? Often we give knowing it may not happen in our lifetime. And I give to causes near to my heart – like the Arthritis Foundation, because my mother suffers with Rheumatoid Arthritis. As with any giving, it’s best not to have a specific expectation of reward beyond the giving.

  2. happyoutlook says

    Really great list of questions and answers to keep in mind while making our family’s year end donations. Also, wanted to let you know that I thought your book Be the Change, which I read a couple of years ago, was quite inspirational.


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