Annual giving: How much to whom and why

With just a few hours left in 2017, Carol and I are still figuring out our final donations for the year. The bottom line: We contributed about six percent of our pre-tax income, most of it to charitable, tax-deductible organizations along with some to individuals in particular need.

This is the sort of topic that, at least in the households Carol and I grew up in, was never to be discussed outside the home. That’s partly because of the traditional view that talking about presumably virtuous behavior diminishes its value, that revealing one’s giving is embarrassingly self-serving.

But I’m inspired by a contrary, more transparent approach espoused by friend and former Detroit Free Press colleague Marc Gunter, who has followed up his distinguished reporting career with the creation of a website called Nonprofit Chronicles. He describes his mission here, and the other day posted a summary of contributions that he and his wife, Karen Schneider, made in 2017. He reports they contributed seven percent of their pre-tax income, noting that their higher than average family income warrants a bigger percentage of giving than the American average of about three percent.

Marc makes a good case for the ways transparency might encourage more intentional giving on our own part at the same time it spurs more discussion — and giving — by others. I was especially struck by his comment that he’s had “almost no luck engaging friends in this conversation.”

Here’s our story for 2017, including links to the three dozen or so organizations we’ve supported:

We do our best to align our giving with our values. We look for the sweet spot that matches up with needs we see and organizations we believe can most effectively address them. Our largest contributions this year went to the Paulist Center, the church and welcoming community we’ve loved being part of since moving to Boston almost five years ago; to Partners in Health, an organization focused on delivering health care to some of the world’s neediest people; and to individuals in need of financial help for one reason or another.

We rely on sites like Charity Navigator to help us assess the effectiveness (and efficiency) of organizations’ work and to make sure their executives aren’t engaged in personal profiteering.

It’s hardly an exact science. In the case of the International Rescue Committee, for example, Charity Navigator says about 92 percent of the money it collects goes to the programs and services it runs. It rates the organization’s accountability and transparency at 100 out of 100 points.

More troubling is the annual salary of $671,749 paid to President and CEO David Milliband, a level of compensation mitigated somewhat by a source of funding apparently not coming from IRC but from affiliated organizations. See “Compensation of Leaders” in left rail of this page.

Especially at this time of year, we also pay attention to matching deals that some organizations have worked out. Physicians for Human Rights, an organization not previously on our list, sent Carol an email touting a five-to-one match for contributions. After checking them out on Charity Navigator, we decided to enlarge a modest $50 gift in support of PHR’s work using “medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations” into a more substantial $250 contribution.

Just now, I got an email from National Geographic pitching a “10x match.” The organization had fallen off our list in the course of our annual reallocation of limited resources, but I figured, What the heck: Here’s $10 that’ll produce $100 in support of journalism and conservation work we believe in. (Carol got the same email and sent them a $35 ticket to $350. We may be sitting nearly side-by-side with our devices this New Year’s Eve, but clearly we need to communicate better!)

As much as these New Year’s Eve pitches may conflict with the idea of more “intentional giving,” I have to admit to their appeal.

A question you may want to weigh in on in the comments below: Is it better to consolidate larger contributions to a few organizations or to spread smaller gifts to more organizations? Our preference, partly guided by Bernie Sanders’ success in attracting small contributions from many, many donors, is the latter.

The recommendations of friends and family have played a significant role in several of our donations. So, too, have our own experiences: schools that taught us, organizations that employed us, initiatives that helped us in one way or another along the way.

In addition to the outfits mentioned and linked above, here are the other organizations (listed in no particular order) that we gave to in 2017. Several have worked out matching deals to magnify contributions if you’re inclined to do so before the clock strikes midnight tonight.

Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center: The remarkable organization in Dorchester where our son-in-law, Marton, serves as director of tennis. Visit their website or, even better, spend an hour or so there in person and you’ll get a sense of the good they do far beyond the baseline.

Beacon Hill Friends House: The Quaker intentional community where Carol and I lived 2013-2015 and wrote about on

WBUR: One of Boston’s great public radio stations.

WGBH: The other great public radio station in Boston.

Boston Health Care for the Homeless: The organization that does exactly what its name implies and was co-founded by our college friend, Jimmy O’Connell.

National Catholic Reporter: The independent Catholic paper that I started stringing for 50 years ago and has been led over the years by such friends as Tom Fox, Tom Roberts, Dennis Coday and others.

Lakota People’s Law Project: The organization providing legal defense for people who protested the Dakota Access Pipeline and other initiatives of the Lakota People.

Call to Action: The lay-run Catholic group working for much needed reforms of the Catholic Church in such areas as gender and racial equality and justice.

The Poynter Institute: The school for journalists focused on preserving and improving the quality of journalism at a time when it’s never been needed more (also the place where I enjoyed working for a dozen years until 2012).

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting: The independent news organization that, among other things, did groundbreaking reporting that helped win the release of Darrell Jones, an inmate Carol got to know in recent years and who served more than 30 years for a murder he says he did not commit.

Give Directly: The international organization with one of the most appealing approaches we’ve encountered: Direct cash contributions to individuals its staff members confirm are in great need.

St. Bernard School: The Connecticut high school whose faculty and students got me off to a good start.

Sacred Heart Academy: The Kentucky high school that did the same for Carol.

St. Mary’s College: Carol’s undergrad alma mater.

The University of Notre Dame: My only alma mater, conveniently located across the road from St. Mary’s.

Wayne State University: The awarder of Carol’s PhD.

Jesuit Refugee Service: The Jesuit organization that helps refugees and other forcibly displaced people.

The Jimmy Fund: A friend who benefitted from the cancer treatment supported by the fund took part in the Jimmy Fund Boston Marathon Walk, and we were glad to acknowledge his family’s hike with a donation.

The Nature Conservancy: We like its mission: “To conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.”

World Wildlife Fund: We took them up on the offer to “be the hero nature needs.”

Doctors Without Borders: This group responds quickly to medical, humanitarian emergencies around the world.

Free Press: Not to be confused with the Detroit newspaper I once worked for (and, as far as I know, not yet accepting contributions). This Free Press is an advocacy group that campaigns for press freedom and will be fighting to restore net neutrality.

Options Recovery Services: Carol signed on as Options’ volunteer psychologist in 1999 and has been working with them, in various capacities, ever since. Most recently in their remarkable program to train long-term inmates to become addiction treatment counselors.

National Park Foundation: This group fights to preserve everything from “hiking trails in the Rocky Mountains to cherishing our shared history in the streets of Selma.” An especially crucial mission in today’s environment.

ACLU: Your donation to the American Civil Liberties Union is not tax deductible, but that’s a small price to pay if you’re on board with fighting a Trump agenda that, at least in our view, limits the rights of too many humans.

The Sierra Club: We support their agenda of protecting “wildlife, wild places and fragile ecosystems, reduc(ing) dependence on fossil fuels, and build(ing) a clean energy future.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center: The SPLC fights hate, teaches tolerance and seeks justice. Enough said.

GiffordsPac: After former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in an attempted assassination attempt, she and her husband, Mark Kelly, started a political action committee to reduce gun violence. It’s not tax deductible, but it’s doing its best to counter the crippling big money influence of the NRA when it comes to sensible gun laws.

Sandy Hook Promise: One of the Sandy Hook parents, Mark Barden, spoke at a Boston University event that Kate brought me to just a few days before the Las Vegas massacre. Among the group’s most valuable contributions is training aimed at spotting the sort of disturbed individuals who might end up opening fire on others.

Images and Voices of Hope: I did some work with ivoh several years ago and came away impressed that the organization’s commitment to discovering “restorative narratives” can help journalists and others become “agents of world benefit.”

Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame: A half century ago, the predecessor of this group sent Carol on what she describes as life-changing service learning projects in Chicago and Santiago, Chile.

Eastern Point Retreat Center: Carol has been serving as a spiritual director on retreats at this place in Gloucester, Ma. for more than 20 years. I’ve been to Eastern Point a few times as a retreatant on its eight-day silent programs, and am headed back there in May.

If this exercise proves useful, I’ll see if I can get it done next year not quite so close to 2018’s closing hours.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll chime in below or on Facebook with lessons learned from your own charitable giving:

  • What’s guiding your decisions these days?
  • How has your giving changed over the years?
  • Any organizations the rest of us should pay particular attention to?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.