Sam WattsThinking Philanthropically

It is a privilege to be invited to contribute to The Montrealer on a regular basis. In future columns the plan is that we will outline key ideas about philanthropy and non-profits. The non-profit sector is an important contributor to society in general, representing more than 8.5% of GDP in Canada. In Quebec, the sector is responsible for roughly one in ten jobs. Non-profits provide many critical community services and receive a substantial amount of their funding from individual donors. In fact, it is quite likely that most of the readers of this article have made a recent donation to a charity or non-profit organization.

One question that donors often ask is not terribly surprising. The question is; how can we determine which organizations we should donate to? The answer isn’t a short one, but there are a few foundational principles. A donor should try to identify a few areas of concern. What are you passionate about?  What change do you want to see? Some people want to donate funds to address health and social challenges that have touched them or their family. Others are interested in supporting needs related to the arts or education.

There are so many worthy causes. The first piece of advice I usually provide is that a prospective donor ought to limit their principal focus to a few key segments or causes. Even if you have the resources of Warren Buffet or Bill Gates it is impractical to try to give something to every cause or organization.  Whether your donation is large or small, here are two suggestions for you to consider:

Avoid random or unplanned acts of charity

Giving shouldn’t be a kneejerk response. It ought to be planned and a part of an overall financial strategy.  It is entirely understandable to feel compelled to donate to a person or a cause when we are faced with an obvious need or some pressing emergency that tugs at our heartstrings.  When we are bowled over by a situation or when we observe a need, it is clear evidence of our humanity. We may feel deep sympathy for a person or indignation at a particular injustice. This can sometimes lead to a less than optimal response on our part. We’ve seen examples of well-meaning people who leap forward to try to resolve situations and unwittingly interfere with professional organizations that are already engaged. Instead it is advisable to pause and assess options. In some instances, a donation is not the best response.

Do your research

Donors are advised to conduct due diligence before donating to a cause or organization. It is strongly recommended to check the legitimacy and stated goals of the organization because there is a lot of helpful information that can be obtained by simply searching the internet. It is also an extremely good idea to write or call the Executive Director of an organization and ask questions. Pay close attention to the answers. Knowledge is important because you want to ensure that your donation, regardless of its size, will be well managed and produce a meaningful impact. Well informed donors become effective partners. Effective partners can help non-profit organizations achieve meaningful outcomes.

Sam Watts is the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He is also the author of Good Work…Done Better: Improving the Impact of Community-Based Non-Profits.

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