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Pleasurable Philanthropy

How your charitable giving can maximally benefit both the cause and you.

Donating to a charity can feel empty--You're aware that even your four-figure donation is a mere drop dumped into a fat bucket that never gets full enough. You may worry that too much of your money goes to nonprofit executives' très profitable salaries.

There’s a better way.

What cause?

I believe it’s wise to focus on a cause that could greatly benefit humankind yet is out-of-favor. For example, helping under-served kids who have excellent reasoning ability to live up to their potential will likely make them better leaders, lead to better products, and maybe even cure some disease. But we’re in an era that prioritizes closing the achievement gap. So, much public school funding has been reallocated from above-average students to the lowest achievers—for example, eviscerated funding for gifted kids and instead, forcing them into the same class as slow learners. True, in rich school districts, parents may provide adequate supplementation and many low-income areas have ample supplementary taxpayer and foundation money but in blue-collar and middle-middle-class public schools, there often is frighteningly little.

Of course, that is but one example of a worthy, underfunded cause. What unpopular cause that could yield great societal benefit do you care about?

Wiser ways to donate money

If you’re in a position to donate $1,000 or more in a year, think twice before making an unrestricted gift to a nonprofit. Your drop in that bucket may indeed feel invisible. Also, try to resist dividing your four-figure donation across many charities. A small donation can result in the charity spending as much as your donation to get more money from you. I recall donating $100 to Smile Train. Since then, I’ve received twice that in glossy Smile Train solicitations.

The following approaches to making four-figure and larger donations will likely make a bigger difference and, because you’ll help control how the money is spent, you'll feel better about your largesse.

  • A prize. With our previous example, you could create a prize for the best new online teacher training course for meeting the needs of above-average students in a mixed-ability class. I created a small such video but better training could be developed. Through the Society for Neuroscience, I fund an annual prize for the best dissertation on the biological basis of cognition.
  • An event. Through an education nonprofit or on your own (although that wouldn’t be tax-deductible,) sponsor a teleconference in which a few top educators of high-ability kids meet to come up with a few ideas for practical initiatives that could improve above-average students' lives. They'd write that up as an article to be submitted to publications read by education administrators and legislators.
  • A lobbyist. Government has enormous and growing power. In our example, funding a lobbyist to the Education Department, for example, through the National Association of Gifted Children, could yield large benefit--for example, reinstatement of funding for programs to meet gifted kids' needs to the same extent as special education kids'. Of course, a great lobbyist is expensive. So you might try getting like-minded donors to join you.

Donating your time

If you’re donating your time, find an opportunity to use a skill you enjoy using. If you are a counselor type, you might get involved in direct service to the clients, for example, providing mentoring to gifted kids with emotional issues. If you’re a good people manager, perhaps manage the volunteers. If you enjoy planning events, plan a celebrity fundraising auction gala. If you like and are good at writing, craft fundraising letters or scripts for fundraising videos. If you’re a database geek, manage their donor database.

A plea for more charity

Yes, America already is a generous nation. Yet it seems cosmically wrong for people to be spending so much on fancy houses and cars and designer labels on their butts when the money could do so much more good.

Is there an unpopular but important cause to which you’d like to donate money and/or time? And perhaps, as you contemplate whether, this summer, to take that 8-day/7-night vacation getting skin cancer lying on the beach, you might reallocate some of that money and time toward curing it.

Marty Nemko’s bio is in Wikipedia.