Six mistakes people make when giving to charity

Christmas donation, Concept of charityHere is a helpful rule of thumb for donating to charities this holiday season: Take your time.

People waste billions of dollars on inefficient, poorly run or downright fraudulent charities because they do not bother to research where their money is going.

And even donations to legitimate causes can be squandered by last-minute, impulsive or scattershot giving, said Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of nonprofit watchdog Charity Watch (www.charitywatch.org/).

In my latest for Reuters, why you should carefully consider your holiday donations.

Automatic payments for charity: pros and cons

Dear Liz: You recently suggested people consider putting their charitable donations on automatic. While I have automatic deductions for savings because I do not want to constantly remind myself to do it, I want to remind myself of all other expenses. For me, prudent money management requires attention to all expenses. Your thoughts?

Answer: Many people find that automatic payments make their lives easier. They’re able to meet their obligations (and avoid late fees, in the case of bill payments) while minimizing time spent in repetitive tasks each month.

But none of your expenses should be “out of sight, out of mind.” Automatic payments don’t eliminate the need to carefully review your credit card and bank transactions each month. Reviewing your bills periodically, and making adjustments as necessary, is an important part of responsible money management regardless of whether you take advantage of automatic transfers.

Help your local food bank

eating breakfastFood stamp benefits to 47 million people were cut Nov. 1–and further cuts may lie ahead.

Food banks already depleted by the lousy economy are now bracing for an influx of new patrons. So if you’re not among the one in seven Americans currently receiving food stamps, please consider a donation to your local food bank to help meet this growing need.

The best donation is cash (or checks, or payment by credit card). Food banks have relationships with food makers and distributors that allow them to get much better deals on bulk purchases than what you can get at the retail level. The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, which my family supports with a monthly donation, can provide four meals for every $1 donated.

If what you can offer is food, though, or your skills in organizing a food drive–that’s good, too.

You can find your local food bank through the Feeding America site.

How to make charitable giving part of your financial plan

Dear Liz: What are your thoughts on charitable giving? I hear about tithing (giving 10% of income) but would have real problems trying to maintain that commitment. That said, I’d like to become a regular donor to a reputable charity.

Answer: Most U.S. households give to charity, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, but the average contribution rate for those who give is closer to 3% than 10%.

If you want to step up your charitable giving, take the time to plan and prioritize as you would any other part of your financial life.

Making larger donations to a few charities is typically better than scattershot donations to a bunch of causes, said Ken Berger, the president and chief executive of nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. Charities spend money to process donations, and those costs tend to eat up more of small donations, he said. A $100 donation to a single charity might incur $2 in processing costs, leaving $98 for good works, Berger noted. The same $100, spread among 10 charities, would require each to spend $2 for processing — leaving just $80.

Because smaller donations don’t benefit charities as much, some are tempted to increase their “yield” by selling your information to other charities or repeatedly hitting you up for additional contributions, Berger said. Giving more allows you more leverage to ask that your information not be sold and that the charity limit its appeals.

You can research charities at websites such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to make sure you understand their finances and how effective they are in reaching their goals.

Finally, consider setting up automatic donations rather than rushing to make contributions at year’s end. Some companies have payroll deductions for charities, or you can set up a recurring charge on a credit or debit card. Making your contributions automatic helps ensure you can achieve your charitable giving goals. It’s like saving or “paying yourself first” — when you don’t have to constantly remind yourself to do it, it’s more likely to get done.