Fixing my chaotic donation patterns

I recently reviewed how much I had donated in past years, and didn’t like what I saw—in many years, I had donated less than I had wanted to, intended to, and had been able to. In some years it was higher because there were more crises that hit on days when I was feeling more generous, and in other years it was lower since charitable causes had been less in the headlines, I wasn’t paying as much attention, or those same crises hit on days when I was stressed and preoccupied with other things. It wasn’t for lack of good intention, but I didn’t have a system in place to set a donation target, track against it, and then check if I had actually donated to match my personal commitment, and correct if not.

An incredibly easy fix—setting a donation target and strategy with the person I share finances with (my husband), making our giving more of a shared conversation, creating a system to track against our goal, and reminders for checking in on how we’re doing—has already made donations decisions way faster and easier, less stressful, and substantially increased our giving. We used to make one-off, pseudo-random decisions about if and how much to give (with some lingering guilt attached as to whether it was too much or too little based on the cause and our overall budget), which led to very uneven, and unknown, results. Deciding to donate “a lot” felt like taking money away from other things, rather than fulfilling an existing intention and budget we had. Now we have easy conversations around how much of our budget to allocate to different causes. It went from “Hm, are we in the position to support X? What’s a reasonable amount for that? How do we even think about that?” to “Hey, since we care about X, what percentage of our donation budget this quarter/year should we allocate to it?”. Of course, we still have to figure out what causes we care about, and which organizations will be effective at moving them forward, but that’s the fun part!

Since this has been such an obvious-in-retrospect win that friends have also been interested in, I’ve pulled the steps together into a customizable spreadsheet template for others to use. Full instructions can be found there, but here’s an overview of the process:

  1. Decide your philanthropic commitment level. This system is all about helping you allocate and actually give the money you intend to, and meet your own personal commitment, whatever that amount may be. The spreadsheet also makes it easy to track your giving against changing commitment levels, as finances often change. (spreadsheet tab)
  2. Choose how you’ll allocate it across categories. We’ve found it helpful to think about our giving in the categories of “Strategic” (long-term areas and philanthropies we’re deeply interested in and committed to supporting), “Current Events” (donations in response to current events, natural disasters, etc.), and “Friends’ Fundraisers” (donations to support causes and fundraisers that friends are raising for, to show our support), and have percentages of our overall giving target allocated to each. How you think about categories and how you want to allocate across them may be different! I’d love to hear other frameworks for thinking about this. (spreadsheet tab)
  3. Think about your desired cause areas. It can be helpful (and later rewarding) to keep track of the areas you want to donate to, and then see how in practice you’re donating across them, making adjustments to your giving patterns as feels right. (spreadsheet tab)
  4. Track your past donations. I found it very enlightening to see what our giving behavior had been in the past, to identify things we wanted to keep doing, and those we wanted to change (like being more intentional!). If you have past donations tracked somewhere (possibly your tax returns), taking a few minutes to write these down and categorize them can be helpful to notice your own historical patterns. (spreadsheet tab)
  5. Setup recurring donations. For areas that you’re now committed to supporting with your pre-allocated budget, one of the best ways to provide non-profits with reliable support is to set up recurring monthly donations that they can plan around, and that remove future decision-making fatigue and credit-card punching-in from you.
  6. Track your donations. As you make donations throughout the year, track them in one place to have an easy record of how much you’ve given to what. (spreadsheet tab)
  7. Hold yourself accountable for fulfilling your personal commitment. Set up a frequency to review your giving so far, relative to your commitment (probably monthly or quarterly). This is your chance to top-up your donations to match your overall commitment, catch that there have been some areas that you want to donate to but haven’t yet, or make any other changes to your patterns. We’ve found that a recurring calendar invite with an email notification is easy and works to prompt the conversation. (spreadsheet tab)

Hope this helps you give confidently and consistently!