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Hats Off to Creative Charity

Charitable giving has long been a priority for Marilyn Clement, but like many people in today’s economy, she’s feeling squeezed. “I can’t afford to write large checks,” she says.

So the 77-year-old from Carlsbad, Calif., buys two skeins of yarn each month and knits about 20 hats for premature babies. The hats are sent to hospitals across the nation by Stitches From the Heart, a nonprofit organization based in Santa Monica, Calif.

“For $6, I can be a real big shot and feel good about what I’m doing,” Clement says.

These days, people across the country are redefining the way they give to charity. With budgets tighter, many Americans have less to give and want to make sure the dollars they do have are making the biggest impact.

According to a study by the Glenview, Ill.-based Giving USA Foundation, charitable giving in 2008 was down nearly 6 percent from 2007. And there is reason to believe the downward trend will continue this year. Between 1967 and 2007, giving dropped an average of 1 percent during recession years compared with an increase of 4.3 percent in non-recession years, the foundation reports.

That trend seems even more pronounced among seniors, according to Atlanta-based direct-marketing firm Grizzard Communications Group, which found last year that those over 65 were likely to give less as a result of deteriorating economic conditions.

“There is uncertainty when it comes to planned giving,” says Michael W. Davis, an elder-care attorney and senior partner with Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny LLC in Columbia, Md. “Obviously, people are trying to make sure they have enough money to keep them going, and many people’s portfolios have been reduced.”

Four ways to make a difference

But like Clement, many would-be donors are finding creative ways to stay within the confines of a smaller budget and continue to make a difference.

Giving Circles. A giving circle helps people pool their contributions and make the most of their gifts. “People are joining with others to leverage their dollars,” says Buffy Beaudoin-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers in Maryland.

One giving circle is Hope for Generations, which works to make a difference in the lives of young children. It started in 2002 with an idea. “A man named Jerry Conover and a bunch of his friends realized that they were comfortable enough to be willing to use their Social Security income to make contributions to charity,” says Alby Segall, who was recently hired to expand the program’s national reach. Hope for Generations is a part of the Denver Foundation, which raises money for nonprofits in the area.

Similarly, Clement says many people are hosting knitting parties for Stitches From the Heart, where they pool their money to buy yarn and ship their donations to the organization.

Charity gift cards. With the holiday season coming up, you can combine your charitable efforts with gift-giving by buying charity gift cards for as little as $10 each. The recipient of your gift designates a charity to receive the money. Websites selling the cards include and

Charity websites. If your charity budget is even smaller, look at websites such as MicroGiving, an online community that lets you donate $1 or even less to a charity or needy individual. The idea is that small donations can add up to real assistance. Other sites offer games and activities that make giving fun. Here’s a list of 10 of them.

Yard sales. Another way people are giving back is donating the proceeds from the sale of items they no longer need. “People are selling items on eBay or hosting yard sales and donating the proceeds,” Beaudoin-Schwartz says.

What charity officials are hoping to get across to Americans, particularly as the giving season begins, is that all donations help, regardless of their size. “Even the smallest gift is making a difference,” Beaudoin-Schwartz says.

For example, at Stitches From the Heart, “we’re having more trouble getting money for the shipping costs to send the hats to hospitals,” says Kathy Silverton, founder and president. A check as small as $10 will pay for a box of baby hats to be shipped across the country.

As people have become more careful about money in general, their attitudes toward charity were bound to change, Davis says. “People are much more cautious about where they’re spending money, and to a degree I think they’re being more strategic,” he says. “That’s not a bad trend.”

Tamara E. Holmes is a Maryland-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and careers.