A BECU employee speaking with another person, with food donations in the background.

Holiday Giving: How To Maximize Your Donation

From donating money to a national nonprofit to volunteering for a local community organization, many people think of winter as the season of giving back. We offer tips on how to get started and how to make the most of your donation.

Buying gifts for family and friends is one way to get into the holiday spirit. For a lot of people, the winter holidays are also a time to give to those in need.

Reasons for donating to nonprofits range from the altruistic, like making the world a better place, to the practical, like paying less in taxes. Plus, giving can just make you feel good. A study by Fidelity Charitable (PDF) shows people who grew up with strong traditions of philanthropic giving feel like they have closer family relationships and feel happier than those who didn't grow up with strong giving traditions.

Katherine Taylor-Hurley, BECU's Director of Community Engagement, appreciates the emotional part of philanthropic giving, but there's an important strategic component.

"Charitable giving is often presented in a way that pulls at our heartstrings," Taylor-Hurley said. "I have always believed it's important to think beyond the feel-good part of it and invest in organizations that are making a significant difference for communities."

Create a Holiday Giving Budget

Deciding how much you can afford to donate is a personal choice that depends on many factors.

Taylor-Hurley suggested thinking about holiday donations in terms of your overall financial health.

"Budget for your needs first, then you can make decisions about how much of your expendable income you can put toward nonprofit causes," Taylor-Hurley said.

Katherine Taylor-Hurley
BECU's Director of Community Engagement, Katherine Taylor-Hurley

If the holiday spirit puts you in a giving mood, it's a good time to think about how you can make a bigger difference than a one-time contribution. 

"We budget for so many things in our lives," Taylor-Hurley said. "It makes sense to stop and think about what an overall, yearlong budget might look like for donations."

If you can afford to give throughout the year, consider making your holiday donation a monthly pledge. Your total contribution might add up to more than the one big donation many people give at the end of the year — and it might be more helpful to the organizations you donate to.

"Most nonprofits need year-round support," Taylor-Hurley said. "It helps if they can count on regular donations to fund their programs."

Give Back Without Giving Money

If you don't have money to give, there are still plenty of ways you can give back. Many organizations need help in the form of time, skills and supplies. 

Much like monetary donations, organizations need help year-round. 

"Soup kitchens are inundated with volunteers this time of year," Taylor-Hurley said. "If feeding people in need is how you want to give back, find out what kind of additional support the soup kitchen needs and when they need it most. Make a commitment to fill that need."

Here are some ideas for how to connect with non-monetary opportunities to give back. 

Volunteer

If you're looking to donate your time, check out VolunteerMatch. You can filter for location, cause and skills. In-person volunteer opportunities may be limited in the interest of COVID-19 safety, but you can search for virtual opportunities.

Donate Food

Search online for foodbanks and food pantries near you. Be sure to check the organization's website to see what items they need and what they will accept. For example, some locations might not have room to store canned or dry goods, but they could use fresh produce. Other locations might only be accepting dry goods.

Dig a little deeper to find out when their peak need is for specific foods and make a habit of checking back regularly. 

Donate Supplies

Check websites for organizations in your area to find out what they need and how to donate. Some shelter services, for example, have Amazon wish lists. This Seattle Times article has ideas for shelter services in the Seattle area. Be sure to check what items are most needed and how donations are being accepted before you donate. Some organizations have limitations on the items they can accept.

Where To Donate

If you don't already have a favorite nonprofit organization in mind, it might be challenging to figure out what organizations to support.

So how do you choose? Here are some ideas for picking an organization that's right for you.

Pick a Cause

Take a moment to think about the causes or issues you are passionate about. 

Taylor-Hurley recommends choosing causes that align with your values. "One way to think about charitable giving is to think about categories. What matters most to you?" 

Nominees for BECU's annual People Helping People Awards, for example, must be focused on specific giving areas that reflect the credit union philosophy of "people helping people." 

"Focusing on giving back according to your values can help you focus your efforts and narrow down your options," Taylor-Hurley said. 

Once you know your cause, you can search for organizations working on that issue. 

Focus on Giving Close to Home

You can give to national or international organizations, but you don't have to look far to find people and nonprofits that need help. Think about your neighborhood, town and state. Is your local mentoring program looking for volunteers? Is an organization in your town helping people find housing or providing kids with school supplies?

Browse a Charity Directory

A few organizations have done the work of evaluating nonprofit organizations for you. You can search by category and region, and you can check the accountability and credibility of the organization. Charity Navigator, for example, scores organizations based on their financial performance, ethics and transparency.

Give Through Work

Find out if your employer offers a charitable giving or gift match program. Your employer might have done some of the homework for you by identifying credible organizations in your community doing work that aligns with your values. Some employers participate in fundraisers during the holiday philanthropic giving season.

How To Maximize Your Donation

Whether you decide to give time or money, you may have options to amplify your efforts. Here are two ways you might be able to give your donation a boost.

Corporate Matching

Many employers offer a company matching program, which means they will match some or all of your donation. Some companies will match more than your donation. Check with your employer for donation limits and eligibility requirements before you donate. You can also check with the nonprofit you select to see if they have any corporate-sponsored matching relationships. If not, you could request that your employer consider becoming a corporate sponsor of that nonprofit.

Taylor-Hurley suggested setting up automatic payroll deductions with your employer to support your favorite organization.

"It's automatically withdrawn and you don't even think about it," Taylor-Hurley said," and you don't have to think about the company match because that usually happens automatically, too."

Paid Volunteer Time Off and Dollars-for-Doers

Some employers offer employees paid time off to volunteer with a nonprofit. Check with your manager or human resources department to see if that's an option for you. This time off would be separate from paid sick leave or vacation leave. Other employers will give money to nonprofits where their employees volunteer. 

Are Donations Tax-Deductible?

In addition to the good feeling you'll get from giving back to your community and supporting those in need, your holiday charitable giving might also reduce your taxable income.

In order for your donation to qualify for a tax deduction, the organization you donate to must be designated tax exempt under Internal Revenue code 501(c)(3). The IRS defines tax-exempt purposes as "charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals."

You can check if an organization is 501(c)(3) tax exempt on the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search tool.

Some special 2020 tax rules have been extended into 2021 that allow people who take the standard income tax deduction to deduct up to $600 in donations from the their taxes. This is an extension of part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Prior to the CARES act, people who took the standard deduction couldn't claim a tax deduction.

If you donate through your employer to take advantage of a matching program, one of your eligibility requirements is likely to be verification that the nonprofit is a 501(c)(3) organization.

Nerdwallet has a good explanation of tax rules related to charitable giving.

How To Donate Safely

Unfortunately, scammers see the increase in fundraising activity during the holidays as an opportunity to steal your personal information and your money.

Here are a few tips to make sure your donations are safe.

Make Sure the Organization is Credible

Legitimate charitable organizations should have verifiable tax and financial information, and should be transparent about how they manage and spend donation dollars. Before you donate, check the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search tool.

There are also several websites that rate charitable organizations, including GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

You can also check the organization's website to see if it has an annual report or financial statements. Many state and local governments also require charities to register.

Donate Directly on the Organization Website

If you receive a donation solicitation by email or text, don't click any links. This could be a phishing attempt to get a commonly used password or even your credit card information. It's also best not to respond to social media solicitations. Your safest bet is to go directly to the organization's website, after you have verified that's it's credible. Make sure you navigate to it on your own, not through a link in a message.

Don't Give In To Pressure

Scammers who are trying to take advantage of your good intentions often play on your emotions. They might tell you that if you don't donate right away, something terrible will happen. Charitable giving is not an emergency. Don't respond to unsolicited requests for donations. To be safe, go directly to the organization's website, or call the nonprofit using a phone number you looked up, not a number given to you.

The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information designed to educate a broad segment of the public; it does not give personalized tax advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, the law, or any other business and professional matters that affect you and/or your business.