Giving Thought: Start with the ‘why’ to determine what causes to support

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Charitable organizations collect the lion’s share of their donations during the “giving season,” the time between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Most nonprofits are sending out their annual appeals and, quite frankly, the number of printed letters and email pleas one receives can be overwhelming. No one can give to every deserving charity, so the discarded “we need your help” materials often leave behind a residue of guilt. Fortunately, there’s an alternative to those remorseful feelings.

Meet Danielle Howard, a financial planner who takes a uniquely personal and holistic approach to money management. “Giving and sharing are foundational parts of a healthy financial life,” she says, and she encourages her clients to incorporate giving — whether it’s money, volunteer time or expertise — into their lives and their budgets.

Charitable giving comes in all shapes and sizes, from simply writing a check to actually building homes and wilderness trails. Some of us give to schools or youth programs, while others are more attuned to the environment or social justice issues. In Howard’s view, the key element is identifying the mission or cause that matters most to you.

“What are you passionate about?” she asks. “If you’re reading the paper or watching the news, what brings you to tears or makes you angry? That’s where you should put your money, time or expertise.”

There are also different kinds of givers. Some are systematic and prefer to give a little every month to one or more chosen organizations. Others like to set aside money in their budget for giving, but dole out money more spontaneously, to a fund drive they just heard about, or a cause that a Facebook friend suggests.

Some individuals are motivated by religious or spiritual practices; others may have experienced a health issue or family challenge that made a deep impact. There is no right or wrong in how or where you give. The key is to be deliberate and intentional about it.

“There are only so many hours in a day and so many dollars in the bank,” Howard says. “If you’re using some of your money in service of your core values, then you’re going to be happier. You won’t be giving out of guilt or compulsion or other reasons that we can fall into.”

Here is a question that Howard likes to ask her clients: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail at it? Perhaps that thing — whether it’s saving whales or curing cancer — is where you should invest some time or money.

Another thing she strongly recommends is an “attitude of gratitude,” which can be a truly liberating force in our lives.

“When you appreciate what you have in every area of life — relationships, work, material possessions, financial resources, health, etc. — it frees you from the constant pursuit of more and gives you the freedom to share what you have,” Howard says.

So, if you want to give and share but don’t know how or where to put your energy, if you’re dazed and confused by all those nonprofit pleas in your email inbox, then consider creating a personal mission statement or giving plan to organize your approach. Being clear and intentional about your chosen cause or organizations will feel good. And, on a more practical level, it will enable you to say “no” to the pleas that don’t fit.

If you’re having trouble deciding how much you can afford or navigating other details of your plan, then call a financial adviser. Maybe you don’t know whether to give now, while you’re healthy and can see the impacts of your generosity, or to make your gifts part of your estate. Many people work with attorneys and financial planners to coordinate gifts that occur after they die.

Whatever your financial situation, giving is a good thing. The details are up to you, and the more thought and care you put into your giving, the better it will serve your values and warm your heart.

“The research is out there that more money doesn’t bring you more happiness, and we know you can’t take it with you,” Howard says. “If we’re mindful about where our money goes and grateful for the opportunity we have to choose where it goes, then it creates an upward spiral.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.