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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

5 Myths About Donating That Will Change the Way You Do Good

The season of giving has started, and for social good organizations and nonprofits, it’s the ideal time to fundraise. During the holidays, people feel generous, and for donors, year-end donations can qualify for a few last deductions before the tax season kicks off.

But skepticism about donating to charities has increased in the last few years. Some charity scandals have been revealed in the media, and there are a lot of myths and misconceptions around giving. While it’s certainly important to evaluate those concerns, it’s also important that you challenge those common misunderstandings and dig deeper to find the truth. You have to be able to separate fact from fiction when it comes to what you’ve heard and be realistic about your impact.

Here are some key myths I’ve encountered about giving and the truth about them—so you can donate effectively and wisely this holiday season and throughout the year.

Myth #1: I’ll Never Know the Impact of My Donation

Reality: True—if you don’t take the time to find out.

We sometimes donate because we want to feel good and be done with it. But it’s important to understand what your money goes to support—so before you donate, research the organizations you’re considering and their true impact.

Keep in mind, you may have to dig deep. A tagline or mission statement may be broad and persuasive, but there’s more to it. For example, if an organization’s website suggests it supports "agricultural empowerment" or "supporting livelihoods,” does is mean it leads job trainings? Does it provide farm animals or other goods? How does the organization decide what communities it works with? How does its leadership team monitor and evaluate their successes and failures? Do they spend more on marketing than on the actual, mission-driven work?

To find the answers, look for an annual on the organization’s website, or search for the company on sites likes Glassdoor and Charity Navigator to find out the back story of the nonprofit’s impact and delivery and what it's like in the office.

Myth #2: I Make More of an Impact When I Donate to an International Cause

Reality: False. It’s not about where you donate, but how the donation will be used.

It’s striking how people are often more willing to donate to and support social issues thousands of miles away in other countries, when there are a number of human rights and social issues that need support in their local community.

But remember that organizations are competing for your attention and your funds, and often, the ones with the best stories win. These tend to be the organizations with worldwide operations—and big marketing budgets.

But keep in mind that the same stories might be happening in your own backyard, but there isn’t always a team to market them as well as some of the big guys. We need to get over the idea that social issues happen only in faraway places and realize that, in fact, similar concerns are usually connected around the world. Homelessness and hunger, as just a couple examples, exist everywhere in the world.

Don’t get me wrong—donating to an international cause is great. But your donations can make just as much of an impact (if not more) on local causes.

Myth #3: My Donation Will Pay a Director’s Salary, Not the Person Doing the Work

Reality: True—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

We often hear marketing ads that say something like, “Your $20 donation will feed a family for a month.” Well, that's not exactly true. Usually, organizational budgets are spread over an entire year—so it’s more likely that your donation will go toward the operations it takes to feed a family, rather than going directly to that particular family.

But it’s marketing that works. Imagine if a charity’s ad was honest and said something like, “Your $25 will go toward our operational budget.” It just doesn't have the same impact.

Research shows that people feel better about helping one person than addressing the larger issues that cause poverty in the first place. But if you’re committed to donating to these causes, it’s important to realize that your contribution will go toward what the organization needs to continue its operations—no matter the stories it’s marketed with.

Myth #4: Traditional Donations Have the Biggest Impact

Reality: False. Organizations benefit from more than just money.

At a recent fellowship reception, the philanthropist hosting the event said something that moved me: “Rather than have my husband’s name on a building or monument, we wanted to invest in the next generation and give society’s upcoming leaders the right support.”

She was speaking about a fellowship program she created and why she decided to give back differently—instead of making a straightforward donation.

Now, there are more opportunities to be innovative with donations than ever before. For example, in her TED talk, Joy Sun speaks about giving donations directly to the poor and cutting out the middle man completely. Perhaps there’s a crowdfunding project you’d like to support on Kickstarter or Trevolta. Or, you can even start your own crowdfunding campaign. You can also consider supporting microloan programs like Kiva or small banks like the Grameen Bank. If you want to get really innovative, think about starting a small, local scholarship or fellowship.

As you can see, there’s plenty you can do outside of donating directly to an organization—and all with the potential for incredible impact.

Myth #5: The Holidays Are the Best Time to Donate

Reality: False. Organizations need donations year-round.

Everyone gives around the holidays, and many organizations count on this projected income and have already built it in the budget for the following year. But come January and February, people are rebounding from the holidays and the donations grind to a serious halt.

Instead, think about becoming a sustainer (someone who donates a little each month) or prorate your donations quarterly so they last through the year.

And when you donate your time, don’t just schedule it around Christmas or Thanksgiving, when everyone else is clamoring to volunteer; find out what other times of the year organizations could use the help. Crossroads New York, for example, hosts an annual event called Fare Share Friday, a dinner the day after Thanksgiving, to fill the gap between services for the homeless between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Doing good should be a year-round priority, so think about how you can build it into the year ahead.

I write a lot about the challenges and the successes of thinking big and doing good, and around the holidays, we need to be extra diligent to consider how our donations and time can be used most effectively. This #GivingTuesday, think about ways to invest your time and money so you will be able to make the most of doing good all year long.

Photo of person holding heart courtesy of Shutterstock.