(Corrects number to six out of 10 contributions instead of one out of six in 5th paragraph from the bottom)
By Kathleen Kingsbury
When he retired two years ago, David Moskowitz promised himself he'd donate about 10 percent of his fixed income annually to charity. The 63-year-old from Niles, Illinois, had rarely deviated from his list of causes until two events this year made him reevaluate: the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the foreclosure on a neighbor's home after a layoff.
"I respect the protests for giving voice to the fact people are suffering right now, so I do plan to donate to organizing efforts," Moskowitz says. "But if I didn't give a lot more to a local jobs-training program, I think that would be missing the point."
Moskowitz is not alone. The Occupy movement and escalating poverty rates are influencing donors this holiday season.
Several recent surveys indicate that charities and nonprofits can expect giving to be more bountiful at the end of 2011, particularly compared to the last two years. Moreover, donors seem to be taking into account current economic challenges and government cutbacks when deciding where to give: A recent poll by the website Charity Navigator (see link.reuters.com/nyk45s), for instance, found human-service groups, such as food banks and homeless shelters, top the list of where respondents plan to give.
"Coming out in the new statistics and media reports is the idea that many fellow Americans are living paycheck to paycheck," says Lisa Philp, vice-president for strategic philanthropy at the Foundation Center. "When human-service or basic-need organizations reach out, there's going to be more receptivity among donors."
Paired with this largesse, though, is an increased desire to avoid what philanthropic adviser Susan Winer calls "checkbook philanthropy."
"People each year find they write checks to organizations they might not even support just because friends or family ask," says Winer, who is senior vice-president of Chicago-based firm Strategic Philanthropy. What's different, especially given donors' own funds may be tighter, is "Wanting to know more than ever that they're being smart and thoughtful in how and where they are giving."
DUE DILIGENCE IS KEY
Eight out of 10 respondents in the Charity Navigator survey ranked accountability and transparency -- including ethics and good governance—as very important when considering what charities to support. And more information about how nonprofits do business is available now online from sites like Charity Navigator or Guidestar (see www.guidestar.org).
Another option, let the professional philanthropists do the vetting for you. Most cities or towns have community foundations, and Philp suggests that donors can learn a lot about the best-run local charities by finding out where these full-time grant makers give. The Foundation Center has also launched web portals meant to highlight best practices for donors wishing to support education (see link.reuters.com/pyk45s) and clean-water initiatives (see washfunders.org/).
Or, before making a donation, try to volunteer. "One of the fastest ways to understand how an organization is run is to spend time seeing firsthand how it works," says Sarah Libbey, president of Fidelity Charitable.
MAXIMIZE TAX BENEFITS
When asked, Americans rarely admit tax deductions influence charitable giving. Nonetheless, charities usually depend on an end-of-the-year bump as donors rush to meet the IRS's January 1 deadline for write-offs.
This year, however, that might not be the smartest route. As Congress continues to debate ending tax breaks in 2013, particularly those making around $250,000 per year may wish to hold off on donations to balance out tax hikes. On the other hand, also on the legislative table is a potential limit on itemized deductions going forward.
"This year more than ever the what-if game comes into play when planning charitable contributions," says Lionel Engelman, a certified public accountant in San Mateo, California. "It can be an additional factor to balance out income with a $50,000 donation in 2012 instead of this year."
Donor-advised funds (DAFs) can also offer a tax advantage. These vehicles, usually run by public charities, let donors to make a contribution and be eligible for an immediate tax deduction, but then release funds on their own timetable. "Using a DAF allows donors to optimize the amount to give and give when it helps you most — when you are in higher tax brackets and can use the write offs," says Drake Zimmerman, a chartered adviser in philanthropy in Normal, Illinois.
Important to note, however, is donors can only suggest where monies are ultimately directed — the funds make the actual grants -- and donations are irrevocable.
Donors are also becoming creative in the type of assets they pledge to charity. In the first nine months of 2011, for instance, Fidelity Charitable saw donations of appreciated securities account for nearly six out of 10 contributions. Gifting of complex assets, such as privately-held stock, was five times higher through September 30 than during the same period last year. "By giving assets instead, you avoid long-term capital gains tax," Zimmerman says. "Then you have even more charitable capital."
Technology, too, is making giving easier. Social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, can introduce donors to a greater variety of causes and let them follow closer the impact their gift has. Donations via SMS are growing in popularity, and even Salvation Army bell-ringers are accepting credit card payments on mobile devices (see link.reuters.com/ryk45s).
"Modern charities have to have a digital footprint," Patrick Rooney, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, says. "Allowing donors to give through multiple platforms is a way to recruit them for the long run."
MAKE GIVING A FAMILY AFFAIR
For the holidays this year, Gillian and Adam Jones of Washington, D.C., decided to give each of their three daughters $500 to donate to a cause of their choice. The young women, from ages 17 to 26, were asked to identify two or three possible charities, and the family ultimately decided together where each donation would go: their church's soup kitchen, a local after-school reading program and Occupy Wall Street.
"It is hard not to see people are struggling to make ends meet this year," says Adam Jones. "We wanted our girls to feel they were directly going to help someone else in need."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.
(Editing by Jilian Mincer and Beth Gladstone)