Discuss: Paying It Forward

Feb 18, 2011

Growing up, my parents set an example of generosity and charitable giving that I have tried hard to follow now that I have a steady stream of income.  Too often, I hear people in my age group (25-30) say that they don’t give to charity, but that they hope to when they make more money.  While I understand their argument (I’m by no means a wealthy person), I don’t believe that charitable giving should be reserved only for the wealthy or financially secure.  So I thought that I might share some of my own theories on charitable donations and I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments.

Amounts. I set aside four-percent of my annual gross salary for  charity.  I donate two-percent through the Combined Federal Campaign, which allows the government to automatically deduct my charitable contributions from my paycheck, and I give another two-percent on top of that to charities that are not on the CFC list.  To some of you, this will seem like a lot of money, and to others it will seem like very little, but this is what I can comfortably donate at this time. 

I also have a rule regarding windfalls.  If the universe is very generous with me (unexpected gifts, IRS rebates, game show winnings), I like to be generous right back.  So I donate 10% of any windfall money to charity as well.

Even if you can’t commit to donating a certain amount of money every month, remember that with charities, every little bit helps.  So if you can donate $25, do it. 

Timing.  While there is certainly nothing wrong with donating during the holidays season, I try to give a little bit every month instead of one large donation at the end of the year. 

My neighbor, however, who only likes to write one check and be covered for 12 months, issues his donations in what he likes to call, “Christmas in July.”  Over time, he’s found that charities, particularly smaller, local charities, are very happy to receive sizable donations in the warm weather months because it helps them fill in gaps when the holiday money starts to run thin.

Type.  For most donors, the charities we choose are very important to us.  Over the years, I’ve developed something of a rulebook for the types of charities that I will donate to, so I thought that I might share it with you.  Please bear in mind, that these are my personal choices and reasons, and I don’t expect you to share them.

  • I donate exclusively to charities that help people.  I love animals as much as the next person, and there are some great charities that help the environment and wildlife (ASPCA, Ducks Unlimited, etc.), but I only give money to charities that help heal, feed, clothe and educate people.
  • No cancer charities.  Why?  Because those charities receive so much money from private donations and government grants.  I would rather donate my money to some of the charities that are overlooked than to a charity that clears $300mil per year in annual revenue.  Komen for the Cure does some great work, but so does my local hospice center and they’re not operating on a nine figure budget. 
  • I split my domestic vs. foreign donations 65-35.  Sometimes, I think we get so wrapped up in donating to help people overseas, that we forget that there are folks in our own backyards that need our help.  So I give American charities an advantage in my donations. 
  • I don’t consider contributions to political non-profits, museums, or anyone who predominantly exists to throw a gala as charitable donations.  Sure, I give money to the Studio Theatre and the Trust for the National Mall and the GOP, but I don’t consider these charities.  They are non-profits, and there’s a big difference in my mind between the two.
  • I don’t give money to either of the colleges I attended, and I don’t intend to until I pay off my student loans.  Some day, I will, but that day is not today.

Belle’s Favorites.  So, who do I give money to?  Domestic: Fisher House (vets), local hospice, local food bank in D.C. and my home state, Christian Appalachian Project, and the Harlem Children’s Zone.  Foreign: Mercy Corps, Holt International, and Heifer International.

Microloans. In 2004, I read about a man whose bank was lending small amounts of money to women in Bangladesh who wanted to start businesses.  Two years later, Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize for perpetuating the notion that micro-credit, small loans meant to help people build better lives, could change the world. 

Over the past two years, I have been making regular loans to small business entrepreneurs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Peru, Mexico, Kenya, etc. through an organization called Kiva International.  Lenders (donors) contribute $25 to a business owner for things like new equipment, seed for crops, new buildings, etc.  These loans empower people to build better lives, and as the loans are paid back, those funds are used to make loans to other entrepreneurs.  So if you’re looking for a great charity that has a real impact on the lives of deserving people, check out Kiva.  You can give as little as $25, and you can give as often or as infrequently as you wish, so it’s perfect for cash strapped Hill staff.

Whether you choose to volunteer or give money to charity, I think it’s important for people to give back to their communities.  If you have a charity that you particularly like, feel free to share it in the comments.  Who knows, maybe this post will inspire a few people to donate.  And if you work for the Federal government, ask your office manager about the Combined Federal Campaign.

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  1. Valerie says:

    Great post, Belle, and a wonderful reminder about need in our own backyards, despite very worthy national and international causes. I'd like to also remind your readers about giving in-kind donations – your time, of course, but also materials like office supplies, unwanted furniture or clothing, and other tangible goods. These types of donations can make a huge difference for non-profits and charities alike.

  2. S says:

    If you're a federal worker, donating through CFC is great. Super easy and you can give a small amount each paycheck which adds up but you don't feel the pain all at once.

    I'm totally with you on donating only to charities that help people too. I donate to health-related charities only when a friend or relative is participating in an event such as Relay for Life or currently my niece is doing Jump Rope for Heart.

    I personally choose to donate to Rebuilding Together of DC which helps to fix homes for the elderly and poor and Teach for America.

  3. Hillary says:

    Consider giving to your local Rebuilding Together affiliate. Rebuilding Together is a national non profit working to make the homes (existing housing stock) of low income homeowners safe, warm, and dry. We believe in a safe and healthy home for every person.

    To find your local affiliate visit the following site: https://www.rebuildingtogether.org/content/organization/map

  4. Meghan says:

    This may fall into the “non-profit” category for some, but my all-time favorite charity/non-profit organization is 826 (https://www.826national.org/). Their whole raison d'etre is to provide tutoring and writing services to the communities they work in, and they operate primarily through volunteer networks. I volunteered in their Michigan office a couple of summers ago–2 full-time staff, and HUNDREDS of volunteers who would just come in and work with kids, privileged and underprivileged alike. DC's branch recently opened and I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but in my mind it's all good stuff and I cannot recommend it enough.

    I'm fairly young and don't make much money, but I'm perfectly happy to donate money and supplies and, when I have it, my time to 826.

    Okay, plug done 🙂

  5. KL says:

    I donate my time to an online reading pen pal program called In2Books. You get matched up with a pen pal in an elementary school classroom and every 6-8 weeks you read a book and write a letter to one another about the themes, vocabulary words, etc. This is a great way to give back to children if you are on a budget (some books are at the library and if not they usually cost less than $5).

  6. montana says:

    My favorites:


    Have a great weekend!

  7. JB says:

    Fantastic post! I too love the idea of giving a small amount to make a big impact, which is why I'm a big fan of Donor's Choose. Teachers post projects on the site (requesting everything from pre-school books to chemistry supplies to band instruments) and then anyone can make a donation. I love that you can find a teacher based on your own parameters (from my state, high need area, music-related, etc) and then give a small amount that eventually turns into fantastic resources for students.

    Also- totally agree re: giving back to local organizations, and I think your comment re: cancer orgs applies internationally as well. The global or national fund for x or y issue gets money from a lot of sources….but the local NGO doesn't and could use the support.

  8. MidwestChic says:

    If you don't have money to donate, time is just as valuable. Big Brothers Big Sisters programs are amazing! Not only do the kids enojy it, but its fun for people our age as well. Nothing beats going to the zoo or amusement park with kids.

    I totally agree that we do not focus enough of our resources in our own backyard. My thinking is: help people here, and ultimately that creates a bigger pool of people who can help the underprivileged overseas.

    I also find that working at our state capitol building is a great way to raise money and have clothing/books/toy drives. Thank the Lord for mass email lists, and legislators/staffers who bring bags and bags of stuff for local charities.

  9. Allison says:

    Interesting to note: Kiva has such high donation levels due to the hype around micro-finance that they sometimes have a hard time lending it out, since these loans require a high level on onsite manpower. (Read-lenders in the communities play a large role to ensure accountability.) Therefore I don't donate through Kiva, my firm partners with a foundation that focuses on micro lending, micro investment, and community impact investing. So if you want to get involved but want to look outside Kiva, look at money management firms that can use your funds, such as MicroVest or the Calvert Foundation. (Both DC based.)

    Belle-Huge props to you for pointing out the need for American donation as well.

    p.s. I don't mean “hype” in a bad way, hype around lending to impoverished women starting businesses is great hype!
    p.p.s. Muhammed Yunus was my graduation speaker, fantastic man.

  10. Belle says:


    I agree about ASPCA. If you want to give money to an animal charity, that is a good one. I personally encourage people not to give to Humane Society of the US because contrary to popular belief, most of the money they raise does NOT go towards local shelters. If you want to donate to your local shelter, walk down and write them a check directly.

  11. Good post, Belle. I rag on a lot of things you write, but I really like & appreciate this one. And Kiva is a great org!

  12. Nellie says:

    Hi Belle – Thanks for sharing your very intentional process and for your encouragement of your readers to participate in this kind of giving! I found your thoughts on cancer charities very interesting, and encourage you to check out the work of Breast Cancer Action, https://www.bcaction.org/, which is a “watchdog” of the breast cancer movement and it sounds like shares many of the concerns you have. Always good to dig a little to be sure the donations/investments you make are going to the right place.

  13. Zoe says:

    I respect your advice on giving to charity, but I support both animal and human charities because our fates are more intertwined than some would like to believe. “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” -Ghandi

  14. Jen says:

    Great Post! Before donating I always research my charities on Charity Navigator. It helps you understand how efficient your charity is with your money. I like to skip the ones with the most overhead. https://www.charitynavigator.org/

  15. Jeff says:


    A charity's overhead is a pretty ineffective way to judge its worth. Nonprofits need to spend money on things like salaries, utilities and non-program costs, just like any other organization. It's important to support those things so a nonprofit can grow into a great and effective organization.

    You can read more about the overhead ratio here: https://www.philanthropyaction.com/nc/the_worst_and_best_way_to_pick_a_charity_this_year/

  16. Belle says:


    Charity Navigator is a good staring place, but it doesn't tell the whole story. For example, my favorite charity Holt, an orphanage, has REALLY high overhead but that's because Navigator counts the services they provide to place children in homes as overhead.

    So even if you start on CN, make sure you don't stop there. Also, the reviews on the site can't be trusted. A friend who works at a 501 regularly adds glowing reviews to their section of the site. In these lean economic times, charities are competing and they want to look the best they can.

  17. Belle says:

    Zoe-If people want to donate to animal charities, I say, do it. My parents donate money to conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and in the 80s, they gave money to Greenpeace and WWF. Your donations should reflect your values and interests, and that's ok.

    I only really get upset with people who donate to the Museum of Film and TV and pretend it's a charity. It's not, it's a non-profit and a rich one at that. Red Cross is a charity, the Paley Center is a fun cause.

  18. Lexi says:

    This is a great post, I've liked seeing everyone's comments about their favorite charities.

    I sponsor two little girls through World Vision, one in Albania and one in South Africa. I also occasionally donate to Room to Read, which builds libraries in developing nations. I am learning to quilt, so while they are not monetary donations, I've made quilts for groups like Project Linus, which donates quilts to hospitalized children. I do also send occasional donations to local soup kitchens and the like.

    I don't have a huge salary either, but I do think it is important to help where you can!

  19. Sarah says:

    If you are an animal lover, I highly recommend donating time and supplies to your local animal shelter instead of the large “national” groups like the Humane Society of the United States, which is not affiliated with local shelters at all.

    I also am a big fan of Heifer International, which provides livestock and training to help communities around the world be self sustaining.

  20. pqresident says:

    for those who don't have the inclination or budget to donate money to charities, there is a good substitute. donate your time by volunteering. my favorite is the DC Central Kitchen which is practically in the shadow of the Capitol Building. you'll also get to meet others who are like-minded and that too is pretty wonderful.

  21. love it says:

    10% tithe of pre-tax income, for religious reasons (Christian). About half of that goes to my church, and half goes to other charities of choice (right now: World Vision for their work with women worldwide).

  22. lorrwill says:

    My experience with Kiva was pretty bad. The constant barrage of emails that I need to give more and had not done enough turned me off to this organization permanently.

    And as love it pointed out Pay it Forward is Christian, which I am not.

    I make my donations on my own to less corporate organizations.

  23. whattokeep says:

    Thank you for posting this! I'm one of those people who very occasionally make a donation, but not on a regular basis, because I never feel financially secure. I needed this reminder that I actually do have more to give.

  24. Becky says:

    I also love Heifer International. (heifer.org)

    If you like the way Heifer is structured, Samaritan's Purse is also a fantastic charity. Founded by Franklin Graham (the son of Billy Graham) It is more Christian-oriented than Heifer and also offers more variety in what you can give. I encourage everyone to check it out! (samaritanspurse.org)

  25. I LOVE being able to donate through CFC. So easy, and the charity doesn't have to spend any money trying to get my donation (I always take advantage of the anonymous giving option). One thing to keep in mind, especially now that it's tax time, is that CFC money is not deducted pre-tax from your paycheck, so you must deduct it on your own in your taxes if you itemize.

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