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How to Be a Philanthropist—Even If You’re Not a Billionaire

8 ways to be an effective altruist in your everyday life.

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This is not a guilt trip. Giving back, paying it forward, carrying out random acts of kindness—most of us want to do these things. We really do. But then work…and kids…and tight finances…and in-laws who always seem to be in town…and, well, life often bump those humanitarian inclinations right off the to-do list. Even when bullet points such as “call about volunteering” manage to remain on your Post-it, it still feels like a monumental task to figure out which nonprofits are worthy of your goodwill. And with the new federal tax code rendering itemization unnecessary for many Americans, that cherry-on-top incentive has virtually disappeared. So, we get it. It’s easier to push those items to next week’s agenda and convince yourself you’ll get it done then.

Easier, maybe, until you consider this: Roughly nine percent of Coloradans deal with hunger. Homelessness in Denver County increased by 14 percent between 2018 and 2019. Approximately 52 percent of Colorado fourth graders are not reading at grade level. And 18 percent of Coloradans report they have trouble paying their medical bills. In short, the struggle is very real for many Centennial Staters.

OK, so maybe this is a little bit of a guilt trip. We do, however, understand the challenges of getting started when it comes to philanthropic endeavors. “People are inundated with asks for gifts,” says Melissa Milios Davis, a vice president with Denver’s Gates Family Foundation, which is known for its philanthropic grant-making, “so being charitable requires some strategy.” With that in mind, we spoke with financial advisers, nonprofit presidents, volunteers, board members, and others to learn the secrets of being an effective altruist in your everyday life. Here’s what they said.


The Experts Say: Understand the Big Picture

Although 2018 was a strong year for giving in the United States, some metrics portend changes—and increasing unpredictability—in the charitable habits of Coloradans and Americans as a whole.

$4.68 billion: Money collected by 7,321 Colorado charities in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s roughly $33 million less than in 2017.
67%: Percentage of Coloradans* surveyed by the Colorado Nonprofit Association (CNA) in July 2019 who said they donated money to charity in the previous year. In a similar CNA survey in 2014, 80 percent of respondents said they had recently donated to charity.
63%: Percentage of Coloradans* surveyed by the CNA in July 2019 who said they donated household items to charity in the previous year. In a similar CNA survey in 2014, 86 percent of respondents said they had recently donated household items.
$39.6 million: Amount raised in 2019 for Colorado Gives Day, organized by the Community First Foundation in December each year; donors gave $35,279,861 in 2018, which was the first time in the program’s history that giving did not increase year over year.
21.4 million: The decrease in number of federal tax returns (nationwide) that claimed a charitable deduction in 2018, as compared to 2017. This reduction can presumably be attributed to the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
68%: The percentage of overall giving done by individual Americans (the rest comes from foundations, corporations, and bequests). The 2018 tax year represents the first time in 50 years that this figure has fallen below 70 percent.
*Coloradans polled include only those who received a state income tax refund.


The Experts Say: Consider Your Motivation

Denver philanthropic strategist Bruce DeBoskey shares three questions that will help you focus more clearly on your philanthropic intentions.
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Photo courtesy of The DeBoskey Group Denver

When most of us are considering an investment—buying a house, getting a degree, starting a business—we try to be calculating. We do our due diligence. But when it comes to charitable giving—a philanthropic investment—many of us are disorganized and not nearly as careful. We write checks and hope for the best. As a philanthropic strategist, I work with Denver families to help them become more effective in reaching their philanthropic goals, whatever those may be. As a part of that process, I explain that philanthropy is like love: The more a family makes it a cornerstone of their lives, the more joy they will take from it. I also explain to my clients that there are three questions prospective donors need to answer to become effective philanthropists. Whether you have $1,000 or $1 million to make a gift of, ask yourself:

What difference do I want to make in the world?
For many people, this question is difficult to answer. Some folks simply don’t know where to start. Others might realize they have divergent views from their spouses or other family members on which causes to support. Still others care about so many different issues that they end up engaging in what I call “peanut butter giving,” spreading donations thinly over a wide area but not having much impact on any one cause.

My advice is to look at your charity as an investment with a social, rather than financial, return. Then think about issues that are most important to you. Dream big about what you’d most like to change or preserve. Ask yourself if there are nonprofits to which you or your family have turned in times of need. Look to charities whose missions align with your core values surrounding, say, the environment, civil rights, or education.

Once you’ve determined the causes you intend to support, go deep, not wide, with your charity. Giving $1,000 is extremely generous. Most people can’t do that. But if you can, think about what giving $1,000 to one organization means versus giving $100 to 10 organizations. In most cases, greater impact and engagement can be accomplished by giving more to fewer organizations.

What does giving this gift do for me?
People often feel like they shouldn’t think about what being charitable does for them—as if it’s selfish or not altruistic to consider the benefits to their own lives. I disagree; in fact, I believe it’s a critical component of being a smart donor. The answer could be expressing gratitude, paying forward a kindness, seeking recognition, addressing one’s guilt for great success, fulfilling religious obligations, passing values on to children, or creating a legacy. The critical part is knowing why you’re doing it so that your generosity can help you live the life you want to live.

What do the recipients of my generosity think is the best use of my donation?
Donors often fail to engage with the recipients of their charity. It’s critical that philanthropists understand the perspectives of the people being served. Ideally, the nonprofits you support have leaders who consult with and listen to those receiving their services. You can also volunteer and learn for yourself if your donations are being spent effectively, according to those you’re hoping to help.


The Experts Say: Focus on ROI

Nonprofits aren’t businesses, but they need to operate like them.
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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Ask any smart business owner what her number one asset is, and she’ll likely say it’s her staff. Ask her what her staff needs to do its job well, and the list might include up-to-date technology, a marketing budget, the freedom to take risks, competitive salaries, and health insurance. Few would balk at those requirements—that is, until those demands are applied to a nonprofit.

This notion—believing charities with low overhead costs are more effective because more money goes directly to the cause—was long ago dubbed the “overhead myth.” Yet the idea that there is an acceptable percentage (usually 10 to 15 percent) of expenses that can go to salaries, marketing, and computers persists among some donors. “The formula for the admin cost of a nonprofit,” says Renny Fagan, president and CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association, “doesn’t reflect how effective or responsible a nonprofit is.”

As the CEO for Urban Peak, a Denver nonprofit that serves youth experiencing homelessness, Christina Carlson says she understands a donor’s desire for his money to be spent on the cause. However, she makes one thing clear: “To keep great staff, the people who do the hard work,” Carlson says, “you have to treat them like professionals and pay them well, especially now that Denver is so expensive.”

Doing those things, which any for-profit venture does every day, Fagan says, should ultimately yield results. “It’s all about the return,” he says. “Donors need to ask if a nonprofit is accomplishing great things, not what it’s costing them in overhead to do them.”


The Experts Say: Choose Wisely

Rare is the nonprofit that doesn’t have a worthy mission—but your generosity is best spent with groups that follow best practices.
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Erin Pulling is careful to say no nonprofit is perfect. The president and CEO of Denver’s Food Bank of the Rockies explains her hunger-relief organization, like all nonprofits, has its challenges. But, she says, prospective donors and volunteers should investigate the operational prowess and current leadership before offering support to any philanthropic organization. “It’s difficult to know all you need to know from a website,” Pulling says. “Signing up for one or two no-strings-attached volunteer opportunities is a great way to pull back the curtain.” She recommends taking notice of the following and asking plenty of questions.

Top-tier nonprofits generally… Have ample volunteer opportunities that vary in time commitment. That’s important because… Not only does it show a certain level of organizational sophistication (mobilizing people is difficult!), but it also displays an awareness that not everyone who wants to help can sign up for the same four-hour shift each week.

Top-tier nonprofits generally… See prospective volunteers as more than just box-stuffers. That’s important because… Harnessing the talent of a graphic designer or a marketing specialist or a CPA on a pro-bono basis can be just as critical to a nonprofit’s mission as leveraging unskilled labor.

Top-tier nonprofits generally… Maintain sustainable, diverse funding sources. That’s important because… If all the cash comes from one place—government grants or an endowment, for example—and that source dries up, the financial health of an institution can change rapidly and unexpectedly. Avoiding the potential for any undue influence coming from one major donor is equally important.

Top-tier nonprofits generally… Respond to the changing needs of the people they serve. That’s important because… When communities are affected by new threats like, say, the opioid epidemic or rising homelessness, existing do-good organizations that are able to evolve their missions to help address the problems will appear relevant to donors. They’ll also be more immediately effective than new nonprofits that pop up in reaction to a crisis.

Top-tier nonprofits generally… Offer educational opportunities, like seminars, to donors, volunteers, and the public at large. That’s important because… The more people understand about human trafficking or lack of access to mental health care, the more they want to help. If educational outreach isn’t part of a nonprofit’s mission, forming programming around the community to meet people in need where they are can help spread awareness, too.


The Experts Say: Get Involved Early in Life

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Denver’s savvier nonprofits build clubs to court socially minded young professionals who one day might become (major) donors. Prospective participants, who are usually between the ages of 20 and 40, see membership not only as a way to give back to the community, but also as an opportunity to network, learn fundraising skills, and gild a resumé. We decided to play matchmaker by creating dating profiles for several of the Mile High City’s most desirable groups.

Name: Next Generation Giving (NG2)
Affiliation: Denver Health Foundation
Age: 2
Most passionate about: Making sure those who can’t afford health care get the medical attention they need, whenever they need it
Most important qualities in a partner: An irrepressible desire to help all living beings, no matter how helpless; zero aversion to that latex-and-coffee aroma of hospitals
Seeking: 25- to 39-year-olds
Nonnegotiables: Attending monthly meetings and several fundraising events throughout the year; bringing $500 to the cause annually; posting on social media platforms to promote volunteer opportunities and fundraising events
You should message us if: You want discounted tickets for good-cause events like the Hot Rocks Griller Challenge and NightShine Gala.

Name: CultureHaus
Affiliation: Denver Art Museum
Age: 23
Most passionate about: Supporting the arts, encouraging arts awareness, and becoming the next generation of generous arts patrons
Most important qualities in a partner: Creativity, curiosity, interest in learning about different mediums, openness to collecting avant-garde art, penchant for gallery-hopping
Seeking: Young—and young at heart—professionals
Nonnegotiables: An annual DAM membership; a $50 annual membership fee for CultureHaus
You should message us if: You’ve always wanted to see rare art and peruse private collections and/or you’d feel good about helping the DAM acquire works for exhibitions and programs.

Name: Denver Active 20-30 Children’s Foundation
Affiliation: N/A
Age: 33
Most passionate about: Helping at-risk or disadvantaged children by addressing their educational, physical, emotional, and developmental needs
Most important qualities in a partner: Compassion, energy, persistence, and complete comfort with shaming your family, friends, and colleagues into giving you donations
Seeking: Men between the ages of 20 and 39
Nonnegotiables: Attending event-planning meetings; working at charity events; engaging in the DA 20-30 grant selection process
You should message us if: You love to help throw a good party and your rowdy but flush friends will pay to attend (you know, because it’s for a good cause).

Name: The 13ers
Affiliation: The Nature Conservancy
Age: 6
Most passionate about: Protecting the planet, but more specifically the lands and waters of the Centennial State
Most important qualities in a partner: Must be an avid recycler and composter, love to hike and backcountry camp, understand Leave No Trace principles, practice catch-and-release, and have a working knowledge of wildland fire suppression and the upsides to water funds
Seeking: 21- to 40-year-olds
Nonnegotiables: A $10 monthly donation (or $100 up front for the year)
You should message us if: You like happy hours; educational lectures; outdoor field trips; cleaning up local waterways; and maintaining recreational trails.


The Experts Say: Grasp the Financial Implications

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Photo courtesy of Milles Studio/Stocksy

Everyone in the philanthropy biz says even the smallest contribution of time, money, or needed items is consequential to a nonprofit. A jar of peanut butter. Time spent walking shelter dogs. A bag of used clothes. But if your generosity extends much further than a $50 bill dropped in a red bucket, you should peruse our (admittedly oversimplified) list of things you need to know—or ask a CPA about—before you donate more.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act
Passed in 2017, this legislation nearly doubled the standard deduction (from $6,500 to $12,000 for individual filers, and from $13,000 to $24,000 for joint filers) and placed new limitations on itemized deductions, which means most Americans will no longer reap tax benefits from charitable giving. Being strategic—like giving larger sums every other year instead of smaller amounts every year—may bring a tax deduction back into play.

Donate to a Colorado Nonprofit Fund
For tax year 2019, there will be a new line on the state tax form that allows taxpayers to give part (or all) of their tax refunds to any nonprofit registered in the Centennial State for at least five years—not just the 15 or so that have been listed as options in the past. When Colorado passed Senate Bill 18-141 in May 2018, it became the first state to allow taxpayers to “write in” nonprofits of their choice when they donate their refunds. Although there is no direct benefit to the taxpayer, supporters of the legislation say they anticipate a larger percentage of the roughly $1 billion in annual state income tax refunds to end up with Colorado charities.

Qualified Charitable Distributions
The IRS mandates that adults who reach 70.5 years of age begin taking a required minimum distribution from their individual retirement accounts, or IRAs. Withdrawals for personal use (read: that Bali vacation you’ve long dreamed of) are subject to income tax; however, distributions sent directly to nonprofits are not. If you were planning to give to charity anyway, it might make sense to do so with money on which you won’t be taxed.

Legacy Giving
If you’ve always wanted to be remembered as an eccentric benefactor who made a mysterious and surprising bequest, planned giving is your sneaky yet savvy way to ensure your money ends up helping to rescue abandoned donkeys or promote the artisan cheese community (yes, both real Colorado charities) or support whatever movement speaks to you. You’ll need to execute a will or a living trust or set up vehicles for giving, like charitable gift annuities or a charitable remainder trust.

Donor-Advised Fund (DAF)
Sometimes referred to as a charitable investment account, a DAF is an account maintained within a public charity—like a community foundation—from which you can mete out dollars to nonprofits you wish to support. Many DAF accounts have a minimum—which can be as high as $5,000 or more—but you’ll receive an immediate-year tax deduction even if you leave the money in the fund to grow tax-free. This way you can conceivably give even more to causes you believe in. Bonus: You only have to keep track of one receipt, even if your cash ultimately goes to, say, five nonprofits.

Impact Investing
A relatively new term, “impact investing” refers to the practice of investments made into for-profit companies, organizations, or funds with the intention of generating measurable social and/or environmental impact along with a financial return. This isn’t typical giving and essentially upends the notion that only nonprofits can fix social ills.


The Experts Say: Serve on a Board

Carol Steele and Sammie Wicks, current board members for Denver’s Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT). Photo by Theo Stroom

A board seat can be a substantial commitment, but the takeaways can be life-changing.
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Carol Steele is, in her own words, a “retirement-age white woman who lives in a nice community in Denver.” Sammie Wicks is, as he jokingly puts it, “a 32-year-old black man who’s never going to be a white woman.” Yet Steele and Wicks have found common ground while serving on the board of Denver’s Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT). The 10-year-old nonprofit has long worked to diversify its board and created a mentorship program that pairs people who are in the early stages of their careers with those who are in or nearing retirement. “We’ve found there’s a lot of teaching going on in both directions,” says Amanda Finger, LCHT’s co-founder. Steele and Wicks concur and agreed to explain what they’ve learned from serving the LCHT—and from each other.

Sammie Wicks: I’m a police officer in Aurora, and I realized my training on human trafficking wasn’t matching up with what I saw in real life. Being on this board has helped me learn about exploitation and how law enforcement needs to change its tactics and try to see how survivors view justice.

Carol Steele: I’m old enough that I was part of the civil rights movement. I’ve always wanted to fight for those who are marginalized. When I moved to Colorado from Indiana, this organization just seemed to be a fit for me. I didn’t know much about human trafficking; now I know too much.

SW: Learning about the exploitation of humans, which put me in the same room as mental health professionals and social service providers, has benefitted me in normal life. I’ve learned to speak that language and have more compassion.

CS: Learning about trafficking has made me look at the world differently. I’m more observant when I interact with people working in certain industries—nail salons, restaurants. If I get a bad feeling, I try to ask questions: How much do you work every day? Do all these women work for that one man? Have you found a nice place to live here in Denver? You just never know when someone is being coerced or being made to work without pay.

SW: We have become the board’s “nudgers.” Carol and I nudge people to remind them that the communities affected by trafficking are diverse, but the people who work to help them might not be. Sexual preferences. Cultural differences. Gender identities. Having the board be more diverse helps, but we still have to be aware and intentional about these issues.

CS: I’ve been very enriched by my sidebar conversations with Sammie. I’ve realized that we have a lot in common, even though you might not think that looking at us. And I have a much greater appreciation for law enforcement.

SW: Carol and I have had a lot of offline conversations. We’ve shared with each other. I’ve learned that although we come from different backgrounds, there are spots where we intersect. The interesting part is when we agree on something but we realize we’ve come to the same conclusion based on different experiences.

CS: I’m grateful to have learned, for better or worse, how trafficking can present itself and to know that we are trying to do the things that need to be done to end it. We have a hotline manned by volunteers. We’re doing important research. I’m gratified by the belief that I’m making some small contribution to this effort.

SW: I hadn’t ever thought about being on a board. I honestly thought boards were full of older people with lots of money. I have been pleasantly surprised at how invested everyone else has been in what I have to say as a younger person.

CS: As a board member, it’s part of the job description to educate others about the unfortunate reality of human exploitation. But I find myself almost unable to stop myself. I like being able to talk to my social circles to educate them and hope they, in turn, educate others.


The Experts Say: Ask About an Organization’s Impact

Quality nonprofits suffer no shortages of poignant narratives or convincing numbers that illustrate their influences.
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Urban Peak

Photo by John Johnston Photography/courtesy of Urban Peak

Mission: Helping youth exit homelessness to lead fulfilled lives

Scope: The nonprofit runs an overnight shelter and a daytime drop-in center; offers supportive housing options as well as education and employment programming; operates a thrift store; and deploys outreach teams to find 15- to 24-year-olds who need services.

312: In 2018, Urban Peak provided shelter to 312 youths, placed 146 kids in supportive housing, served 6,935 meals, and supplied immediate-need items to 358 youth on the streets.

Storyteller: Fatima Kiass is a former Urban Peak client who overcame many challenges on her way to self-sufficiency. Today, Kiass (pictured above) is an Urban Peak employee. The 28-year-old has been working for the organization for two years.

In her own words: “I’ve been homeless a couple of times. My mom was a single parent. I always had love, but not always the things I needed. Still, no matter how bad things were, my mom would take my sister and me to Civic Center Park to hand out banana bread muffins to the homeless. I was college-age when I came to Urban Peak to volunteer and to access services. I had gotten into UNC-Greeley, but I was essentially homeless. It’s hard to be homeless in a small town. So I came back to Denver and found that Urban Peak understood my situation. To many others, I was too functional to be homeless; I was fake homeless. They helped me find an apartment, where I paid a percentage of the rent and was able to start saving money for when I would age out of services at 25. When I got my life stabilized, I knew I wanted to work for Urban Peak. Now I’m part of its outreach team. Every day I go out with a backpack filled with socks and underwear and hand-warmers—to skate parks, to Civic Center Park—to find kids not in shelters. I help them get vital documents; I help them feed their dogs; I try to give them love and affection. I always knew I would eventually be OK; I have my mom to thank for that. I want these kids to know they can be OK one day, too.”

American Red Cross, Colorado-Wyoming Region

Photo courtesy of the American Red Cross of Colorado

Mission: To prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies

Scope: During its 106 years in Colorado, the Red Cross has helped people in Colorado and Wyoming prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters; taught life-saving skills to thousands; supported U.S. service members; assisted immigrant communities; and reconnected families separated by disaster or war.

Storyteller: It’s pointless to try to come up with any descriptor for 77-year-old John Miller other than “badass.” He spent four years with the Navy in Vietnam. Then he was a volunteer firefighter, sometimes battling wildland blazes after moving to Boulder in 1999. He’s also, for the past 12 years, been a disaster and damage assessment volunteer with the Colorado-Wyoming Red Cross, deploying to more than 30 disasters.

512: In 2018 alone, the American Red Cross Colorado-Wyoming Region responded to 512 disasters in the region, enrolled 57,818 people in CPR and first aid classes, and engaged 2,802 volunteers.

In his own words: “You don’t have to be involved in the worst day of people’s lives to volunteer for the Red Cross, but my background led me to disaster response. A lot of people use the word ‘altruism’ when talking about my volunteering, but altruism is selfless. This fulfills me, excites me—gives me some purpose. I responded to the 2013 floods, to wildfires, but mostly we do house fires here in Colorado. We deal with displaced residents who are often standing outside their homes in PJs in the freezing cold. It can be an emotional experience, but a huge part of that is experiencing how grateful people are. I keep a lot of those responses in the memory bank. One such memory wasn’t from a house fire but from a home we responded to in Longmont because a pipe broke and flooded the place. The mold was so bad the family was living in the backyard in tents. We went to give them assistance and connect them with services to help them recover. The father was a traveling minister, and he had a young family. There were five beautiful kids. After we assessed things and spoke with the parents, I went to my car to grab five teddy bears that we carry. I will never forget the looks on those kids’ faces when I handed them the bears. I choke up just thinking about it. Those are the things that keep you coming back to help.”

Volunteers of America Colorado Branch

Photo courtesy of Volunteers of America Colorado Branch

Mission: To identify and serve the basic needs of the most vulnerable individuals and families in Colorado

Scope: VOA Colorado Branch serves at-risk youth; the elderly; low-income families; those experiencing homelessness; and women and children escaping domestic violence.

269,253: By harnessing 269,253 volunteer hours, the organization helped roughly 205,205 Coloradans in 2019.

Storyteller: Seventy-four-year-old Elaine Levengood has been volunteering for VOA Colorado Branch for 10 years and has put in more than 500 hours.

In her own words: “I got involved with Meals on Wheels in Colorado because the program helped my parents in Ohio. It allowed them to stay in their home instead of having to go to a facility as they aged. That was important to them, and it’s important to my clients now. I spend three hours a week doing two routes. I get to know these people. I had one client, a man who was caring for his disabled wife, whom I still think about. One day he opened the door and invited me in because it was their 47th wedding anniversary. He had helped her get all dolled up. It must’ve been quite an undertaking, but it was important to him, and he shared it with me when I dropped off their dinner. I keep doing this because I see my parents in my clients, but also because I get to see so much good in humans.”

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