Making charitable contributions requires serious decisions. How much can you afford to give and feel that you're making a difference? Who do you most want to benefit from your support? Which charities can you trust?
Here are a few tools and tips to help get you going.
See also: AARP Foundation Gift Planning.
1. Figure an amount. It's a good idea to budget for charitable giving, just as you would budget for anything else. As a starting point, consider that the average American household gives about 2.1 percent of its after-tax income to charity. Older Americans give at higher rates (2.5 percent for ages 65 and over, 5 percent for ages 75 and over).
If microphilanthropy is new to you, consider setting aside a certain percent of your overall charitable giving for that purpose. No matter how you slice it, though, planning begins with a well-thought-out budget. Be sure to bring your financial adviser or tax adviser — if you use one — into the loop.
2. Consider your causes. If you search out causes that have some special resonance with your beliefs, interests and life experiences, the "micro" approach to giving might appeal to you. Start by listing some of those causes. Number them in order of importance to you.
3. Do some math. It's time to allocate. Slice your pie in equal pieces or give more to your top cause and less to the others. Undoubtedly you'll fine-tune these numbers as you go, but you have to start somewhere.
4. Match causes with charities. The Internet makes it a lot easier to find a charity doing the kind of work you want to support — and to make a contribution to that charity. Most charities now process online contributions, and nearly all of those welcome gifts of any amount, large or small.
To search for prospective charities, join the keywords that interest you with the word "charity." Or review Your Guide to Microgiving Websites.
5. Exercise due diligence. Everyone's heard of scams that try to exploit people's impulse to rush aid to disaster victims. Unfortunately, charity fraud is everywhere, and even some legitimate charities aren't very good at what they do — spending more money on salaries, for example, than on good deeds.
Make sure that your donation would go to a nonprofit 501c(3) organization that's classified as a public charity by the Internal Revenue Service. (Contributions to for-profit companies, of course, aren't tax-deductible.) Perhaps most telling are a nonprofit's tax returns, which include reasonably detailed information about revenue and expenses as well as a list of officers, directors and key employees who receive more than $100,000 in total compensation. The tax returns, known as Form 990s, are public and available directly from charities.
Some charities post all of these documents on their own websites, but you may find it easier to register with GuideStar. GuideStar collects information about charities and other nonprofit organizations and makes much of it available, free of charge, online.
Also worth checking:
Charity Navigator, an independent, nonprofit organization that rates charities.
The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, which evaluates charities in terms of how they meet 20 standards of accountability.
The Federal Trade Commission's online publication Avoid Charity Fraud. It's packed with good tips and links to helpful websites, including one that maintains a list of state offices that regulate charitable organizations and solicitations.
Finally, one of the great things about "microphilanthropy" is that you can learn a lot about a charity — and its beneficiaries — by giving at your own pace.
6. Enlist others in your cause. People increasingly use the Internet to raise money for their favorite causes and charities.
One way is simply to e-mail everyone you know with the most impassioned pitch you can muster and a link to the charity's online donation button.
Many microgiving websites provide online tools that make it even easier to reach everyone in your social networks.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter also offer applications that help you create online communities to build support and raise money for issues, charities and political candidates. And most charities are now on those sites, too.
7. Assess your impact. Periodically, take stock of how you're doing. Most microgiving websites have features to keep donors apprised of the impact their contributions are having on the ground as well as when certain fundraising goals have been met.