We started a tradition the last few years. Once a year, in December, we meet together as a family to decide which charities we are going to support for the year. On a Sunday night, after dinner and dishes, we meet around the table. Our faith affects how we earn, spend, and give our money, so we typically start the meeting reading a few bits of scripture to remind us why we give and what causes we should support. This isn't a religion blog, so I won't get into it much, but suffice to say that our religious views highly motivate us to give. We like to think of it as a stewardship mentality. We are only on this sphere for a limited time period, and the money we have has been given to us to manage as best we can-for the benefit of ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and the world at large.
How to Choose Charities
I'm not going to tell you what causes to support; I'm simply explaining what we do. I do think having an underlying philosophy to your giving is helpful, however. Our general philosophy behind causes worth supporting can be summed up as follows:
- Feeding the hungry
- Clothing (and sheltering) the “naked”
- Healing the sick
- Liberating the captive (both spiritually and physically)
We also lean more toward helping those closest to us (“our own”) than those who are far away.
Around the Room – Each Family Member a Voice
After talking about the importance of giving and what causes we should support, we go around the room and let each member of the family talk about the causes they want to give money to. This year, we had a niece and two nephews staying with us that weekend, so we invited them to play along. These were the ideas family members came up with:
- Operation Underground Railroad
- Give people chickens and goats
- Help returning soldiers
- Doctors Without Borders
- Help those who want to go on a mission but don't have clothes
- Help local refugees
- Disabled children's hospital
- The Food Bank
- Homeless clinic
- Homeless shelter
- Help provide clean water to a village
At this point, we went back around the room to flush out these ideas. We not only wanted to identify a specific organization, but we wanted to classify it into one of those four categories above.
Flushing Out the Ideas Together
This one was suggested by Whitney, the WCI columnist. This organization “exists to rescue children from sex trafficking. This fits with our goal to “liberate the captive.”
This was the best option we could come up with to “give people chickens and goats,” a suggestion from our 7-year-old nephew. They focus on disaster relief, women's empowerment, hunger relief, health, education, and economic development. This one meets our “feed the hungry” goal.
This one came from our eight-year-old, who is fascinated with all things military and vacillates back and forth between being a soldier and being an emergency doctor when he grows up. He wanted to help returning soldiers. We considered the Wounded Warrior Project but settled on this one as it was rated better by charity rating organizations. This one meets our “heal the sick” goal.
We're serial donators to Medecins Sans Frontieres, so it was no surprise to see this one come up again, this year from 10-year-old Maren. I frequently consider serving with MSF as a physician, but it probably doesn't make sense to do so for another decade or two given their minimum required commitment of six months for emergency docs (surgeons can go for just three.) This one obviously goes toward our “heal the sick” goal.
This one came from the eleven-year-old cousin. We looked around for a few minutes for an organization doing this, but in the end, it sounds like what she had in mind was a one-time service project that had happened earlier in the year for some missionaries from Ghana. We thought a donation to our church's general missionary fund wasn't really the same thing, and took this one off the list.
This was another one from the eleven-year-old cousin. The IRC is the best organization we know of to help local refugees. We like that they let us specify that the donation be used locally. This one is a combination item in that it helps feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and liberate the economically captive with career training and English classes.
Disabled Children's Hospital
This one came from the nine-year-old cousin. There are two local options; the first is Primary Children's Medical Center, run by the behemoth Utah-based medical system IHC. While technically a non-profit, it's been doing all it can to run us out of business over the years, leaving a sour taste in my mouth when it comes to donating to them. The other option, the local Shriner's Hospital, doesn't seem to be all that interested in getting donations, which is no surprise given what they charged us to take our daughter up there for a scoliosis check. We took this one off our list for this year. In retrospect, I kind of wish we'd looked at some international options in this department. Maybe next year.
This one came from my wife. We feel strongly about not giving to panhandlers throughout the year. But we also feel strongly about supporting the organizations taking care of the homeless in our community. So we donated again to the Utah Food Bank. This helps us “feed the hungry.”
Supporting the local homeless clinic was another suggestion from my wife. As an MS2, I was a manager of the Saturday morning clinic run by medical students and their faculty, but this clinic is open all week long. I frequently refer patients there and am glad it exists in our community. In my work with the homeless, both charitable and professional, I'm always impressed what a tiny percentage of them live on the street. Most are couch-surfing or living in their car. This clinic helps them all and I'm proud to support a true community safety net that can provide something besides the emergency care we do in the ED. This donation helps us to “heal the sick.”
My wife's third suggestion, this is our local homeless shelter and an organization we support most years. While a surprising percentage of those living on the street actually like camping out, it's not quite so fun in the Winter. I want them to at least have the option to be inside at night. We see shelter as similar to clothing, so this helps us to “clothe the naked.”
This was my suggestion for this year. One of my retired partners goes to Colombia with a group of people to help people in severely rural villages. It seems in one area industry has dammed up the local river, eliminating the traditional water source for a number of villages. They don't want to leave their land, so they've been walking for miles each day to scoop water out of some slimy pond. This group is drilling wells using a portable drill invented at our alma mater, that can be carried on donkeys to these rural areas. Clean water is important not just for “healing the sick” but also for “feeding the hungry.” Water is food, right?
The Vote: How Much Will Each Charity Receive?
We decided to support all of these organizations this year, but there is always the question of how much to give to each of them. Katie and I decided long before the meeting how much we were going to give total, but we left it up to the entire family to decide who got what. We'll leave the exact amounts we gave out, lest this post come across as a humblebrag, but it's fun to watch them advocate for their favored causes to get the most amount of money. In the end, the 8-year-old vote counts just as much as the adult vote. Then the kids go build gingerbread houses with mom while I do the physical work of writing checks and filling out online donation forms.
Why We Don't Use a Donor Advised Fund
It seems the big deal in 2017 on the blogosphere was the Donor Advised Fund, or DAF. This is a fund where you can put money in the fund now and dole it out over the years. The tax break comes in the year you put it in the fund, rather than the year the charity itself gets the donation. It can be very useful for someone who wants the tax break this year, but isn't sure exactly what charity they want to support or who wishes for the charity to not get the money yet or all at once. However, there is an additional fee compared to just investing in a regular taxable account.
Since we want the charities to get the money right away, and we don't want to pay DAF management fees, we haven't found a reason to start a DAF yet for us. If we have appreciated shares we've owned for at least a year, we use those for our larger donations and just donate them directly, rather than via a DAF. But mostly we just give cash (or credit card for convenience.)
Future Annual Giving Meetings
Why do we have a meeting? Why get the kids involved at all? For a few reasons:
- We want our children to learn to be charitable. We want them to be loving, giving people who care about those around them.
- We want our children to develop a stewardship mentality. Less Gollum, more Samwise Gamgee. We want them to view money as a tool and something that is used to make the world a better place, rather than something that belongs to them.
- We want our children to understand just how privileged they are. They do not need to worry about their family being financially insecure. Seeing us give money away shows them that we have enough and to spare–they do not have to lie awake at night worrying about where their next meal will come from. We want them to realize that the vast majority of their fellow countrymen, much less the world, do not have a life like theirs. We hope this will cause them to be grateful, charitable, and NOT out of touch spoiled brats.
- We want them to learn to manage money, including how to give effectively. Over the years, they are learning how to evaluate a charity and argue for one over another. These lessons will serve them well in their own lives as well as potentially managing money that we leave behind. Long term blog readers know that the majority of our children's inheritance will be what they get from us in their 20s for college (529), retirement (Roth IRA with a daddy match), and a 20s fund (UTMA) for missions, wedding, honeymoon, car, and a house down payment. While we may change our minds later, a significant part of our wealth will be left for charity, and we think it would be wonderful to have our children continue to meet around a table once a year to decide which charities to support with that money.
What do you think? Do you see effective giving as an important aspect of your financial life? How does your family decide which charities to support and how much to give? What charities have you supported in the last year? Comment below!