Financial planning is, for the most part, straightforward. You want to save enough for the future, then avoid a shortfall by investing those savings wisely. Pretty much every other topic in the world of personal finance—from asset allocation to taxes to safe withdrawal rates—can be viewed through the lens of those two overall goals.
But there’s one topic that’s not straightforward at all, and that’s philanthropy. It’s not straightforward because it runs counter to those two fundamental goals. Instead of increasing your net worth and bolstering your 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. And in many cases, those checks are written in a hurry toward the end of December. Charity experts, though, 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 notes several categories of possible motivations. For some, the motivation is clear: They’re “cramming for the big final exam in the sky.” But 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 on a building? There is 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 one million non-profits in the United States. 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? Most 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. And it will often 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. And 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 said, “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 most important priorities.
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, though, that may or may not be where real impact can be made. Philanthropy experts suggest conducting an assessment of your skills. Then see where there’s a fit with a given charity’s needs. What is 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’s not always the case. If your charitable assets run into the millions, a donor-advised fund’s percentage-based fee could quickly exceed the cost of 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: A “private” foundation is 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 donor-advised fund. But there are also hybrid approaches: One philanthropist noted that a private foundation can make a grant to a donor-advised fund, which can, in turn, write an anonymous check to a charity when necessary.
The bottom line: You should apply as much thought and rigor to the process of giving away money as you did to earning it.