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Giving Wisely

Adam M. Grossman

FINANCIAL PLANNING is, for the most part, straightforward. You want to save enough for the future and then avoid a shortfall by investing those savings wisely. Pretty much every other topic in the world of personal finance—from asset allocation to paying taxes to safe withdrawal rates—can be viewed through the lens of those two overall goals.

But there’s one topic that isn’t straightforward at all, and that’s philanthropy. It’s not straightforward because it runs counter to those two fundamental goals. Instead of increasing our net worth and bolstering our financial security, philanthropy subtracts from it. In the words of one veteran of the philanthropy world, “When you give money away, you’re getting nothing in return—except maybe a tax deduction.” From a purely financial standpoint, philanthropy doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Because it seemingly defies all the other laws of personal finance, many people have a harder time making a philanthropy plan than they do an investment plan. They just aren’t sure how to think about it. To help address this challenge, I spoke with several philanthropists, as well as a consultant who specializes in strategic philanthropy. All wished to remain anonymous, but their collective thoughts are reflected below. To get started making an effective philanthropy plan, the experts recommend asking yourself these five questions:

1. What is your “why”? For many people, charitable giving is somewhat haphazard. They write checks to the organizations that solicit them. In many cases, those checks are written in a hurry toward the end of December. Charity experts, however, recommend getting in front of this process. Instead of rewarding only the organizations that happen to solicit you most effectively—or most frequently—take time to consider what really matters to you.

What does this mean in practice? The philanthropy consultant I spoke to notes several categories of possible motivations. For some, the motivation is clear: They’re “cramming for the big final exam in the sky.”

But other motivations run the gamut. Are you trying to change the world in a specific way? Do you care, for example, about a particular social or political issue? Do you care about a specific institution, such as your alma mater or your children’s school? Do you want to help institutions in your local community? Do you want to see your name on a plaque or a building? There’s no right or wrong here. What’s important is to think about what matters and what you’d like to accomplish.

2. Do you prefer to go broad or narrow? There are more than a million nonprofits in the U.S. In other words, there are more good causes than resources to go around. If even Bill Gates can’t respond to every solicitation, how should you allocate your resources? Many charitable experts advise an 80-20 approach.

Focus 80% of your resources on the short list of causes or institutions that matter most to you. This will allow your dollars to have more of an impact. It may even allow you to see the tangible results of your support. It will also allow you to develop more knowledge and expertise in your chosen areas. That can help you further refine your strategy for greater impact. Mercenary as it may sound, focusing also makes it easier to decline requests that fall outside your areas of focus.

At the same time, experts advise, you want to reserve a portion of your budget for a broader basket of gifts. Many donors, for example, will make a modest donation to any organization in their community that asks. In these cases, as one expert told me, “It just wouldn’t be right to say ‘no’.” The benefit of a 20% bucket, then, is that it allows you to say “yes” even when a particular charity’s mission isn’t one of your top priorities.

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3. What do you want to achieve? For the organizations receiving 80% of your support, what do you envision as the result of your support? Do you want to help a charity with its existing mission or with a new initiative, such as a building fund? Or do you want to create something entirely new? Some of my favorite charities, for example, aim to help disadvantaged children using creative venues, including basketball and squash. Before their founders dreamed them up, nothing like these programs existed.

4. What level of involvement do you envision? Do you have the time to get involved directly with a charity, or do you prefer to limit your involvement to financial support? If you’re going to give of your time, think carefully about how you’d like to help. Most people think about sitting on a charity’s board. Depending on the organization, that may or may not be where the biggest impact can be made. Philanthropy experts suggest conducting an assessment of your skills, and then see where there’s a fit with a given charity’s needs. What’s your area of expertise—operations, marketing, technology, recruiting? Ideally, you can apply the skills you used to build your wealth to help charitable organizations pursue their missions.

5. What charitable structure do you prefer? The two most popular choices are a private foundation and a donor-advised fund (DAF). In general, a DAF is the simpler choice and more cost effective than establishing your own foundation. But that isn’t always the case. If your charitable assets run into the millions, a DAF’s percentage-based fee could quickly exceed the cost of having your own foundation. DAFs are also limited in that the only thing they can do is issue checks to charities. Your own foundation, on the other hand, could hire employees and directly operate a charitable program.

At the same time, charitable foundations have their own limitations. Most notable: Private foundations are anything but private. They must publicly disclose the charities they support. If you want to remain anonymous—to avoid generating further solicitations or to keep your charitable priorities private—you’ll want to opt instead for a DAF.

The bottom line: You should apply as much thought and rigor to giving away your money as you did to earning it.

Adam M. Grossman is the founder of Mayport, a fixed-fee wealth management firm. Sign up for Adam’s Daily Ideas email, follow him on Twitter @AdamMGrossman and check out his earlier articles.

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Rick Connor
Rick Connor
18 days ago

Terrific article Adam. I really like the framework you layout. We started a DAF a few years ago. One of the benefits is you can bundle several years of contributions to take advantage of the tax deduction. A lot of the “20%” local contributions are yearly or unpredictable (think a natural disaster, or a relative participating in a charitable event), so they may not make sense in a DAF.

Purple Rain
Purple Rain
18 days ago

My conflict lies in whether to donate now (I am fifty) or a larger amount later in life. Right now 40% of my assets lie in my IRAs and 401(k) that will be subject to RMDs at age 72. I am trying to structure my spending and finances so that I donate all my funds in my tax deferred accounts through RMDs from age 72 onwards. Hopefully I can.

Rick Thompson
Rick Thompson
18 days ago

Excellent article, Adam! I also like your 80/20 approach, which I had never heard of before. If the organizations one supports are small, by focusing the 80% on them, it can have a far greater impact–and be much more appreciated–than by giving the same amount to a large organization. I also do my own due diligence by reviewing a charity’s most recent IRS 990 filing.

For philanthropists of more modest means and at least 70.5 years of age, making annual contributions via a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from an IRA is another great option. QCDs also have dual advantages: counting towards one’s Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) for those 72 and older, while not counting towards one’s adjusted gross income (AGI).

Jane Lorentzen
Jane Lorentzen
18 days ago

This is a helpful article. I completed Peter Singer’s course “Effective Altruisim” (taught at Princeton, free enrollment through Coursera) last year and it helped me to think deeply about what I want to accomplish with my charitable contributions (and how to give effectively). The 5 questions outlined by Mr. Grossman here offer a valuable shorthand method for making a philanthropy plan. I’ve not encountered the 80/20 approach described here to target charitable giving. Targeting 20% of annual giving for local asks is a helpful approach to being a good neighbor and community member while remaining focused on broad philanthropy goals. Thank you.

Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
18 days ago

I suspect Adam is definitely the smartest guy in the room.

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