It's never too late to start giving back; photo by David Turner
Years ago, I wrote an article titled “Charity is easy . . . especially when wine is involved” for a Rochester publication. I stand by this message, as I like to incorporate giving back into everyday life as a way of making it more practical. People think giving back requires a grand gesture, all of the dollars, and time commitments lengthier than long-term relationships. I understand that feeling, because I’ve been there. Once upon a time, I didn’t know where to begin giving back, but I knew I wanted to, and I was inspired by my network and community to figure out how to make a meaningful impact. Call me a myth buster, but my preconceived ideas on giving back couldn’t have been more off base.
In its simplest form, “philanthropy” means “a love for humankind” and is often explained as giving one’s “time, talent, or treasure” for the betterment of others. I think viewing philanthropy in this way is a more approachable and comfortable idea for those wanting to make the world a better place but struggling to know where to start.
Regardless of status or financial circumstances, the most valuable asset you can give is time. After all, no matter what you do, you can’t obtain more. Volunteering is a selfless way to share your time with others, but it’s important to consider your passions, values, and priorities in order to best fill your philanthropic cup. Consider the following questions:
- What do I enjoy doing?
- How much time do I have to give?
- What community needs or challenges resonate most for me?
If an organization doesn’t immediately come to mind after asking yourself these questions, let Google be your guide! Many nonprofits list volunteer opportunities right on their websites, and if not, an email inquiry is the next best thing.
For those looking to dip their toes into the world of volunteering, the United Way of Greater Rochester and its Finger Lakes online platform, Volunteer United, is a terrific “one-stop shop” to browse volunteer opportunities, in-kind donation needs (in the form of wishlists where you donate requested new and gently used items), and more. Starting small is a great way to get engaged on your terms and in a way that fits into your day-to-day life.
I recommend dating an organization before going steady. The best way to do this is by volunteering to help with day-of execution of a fundraising event. This type of volunteering lets you see a nonprofit’s mission come to life through sharing of success stories, interacting with staff, and familiarizing yourself with the motivations of existing supporters.
Another great way to test drive philanthropy is to enlist your friends. In my twenties, a friend asked if I’d join her in volunteering at the Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley’s annual “A Purse for Change” auction, an event focused on raising money via silent and live auctions to promote economic self-sufficiency for women and girls through grants and education. We helped with event setup and check-in and encouraged attendees to browse and bid on bags–not a bad gig if you ask me! After helping with the purse auction, I fell in love with the foundation and its mission. Post-purse auction, I agreed to voluntarily serve on a committee to help plan and execute the following year’s auction, and I eventually joined the foundation as the director of development and programs—a role that has impacted my career trajectory to this day. By no means am I saying you must follow this volunteer-turned-employee path; I’m just a bit extra.
Don’t have enough time at the moment to volunteer at an event? Not a problem! Another great option is to give back at your own pace and on your own terms by crowdfunding wishlist items with your peers. Local charitable organizations are typically forthcoming with their needs if you ask. A simple email, DM, or phone call can help you identify a community need. From there, social media makes it easy to share the need with your network, communicate what items or support are needed, and express why the mission is vital. For years, I hosted an annual ornament exchange holiday party for a group of girlfriends, which I used as an opportunity to crowdfund support for local nonprofits. Whenever someone would ask what they could bring, I had one simple request: feminine hygiene products. Each year the collection bin overfloweth, and everything we collected would be delivered to organizations supporting unhoused women.
When it comes to financial donations, my monetary donation mantra is simple: “Set it and forget it.” Setting up regular donations on an ongoing basis (monthly, quarterly, etc.) allows donors to spread their financial impact throughout the year, a blessing to organizations that rely heavily on fundraising as it takes away some of the year-end giving guesswork. To break it down, a generous $250 donation spread out over twelve months instead of a single gift on December 30 while your bank account is still recovering from a holiday shopping hangover breaks down to $20.83 per month, which feels much more approachable.
There is also great value in becoming a “member” of an organization. Many local museums and cultural attractions offer the opportunity to donate a set dollar amount with a portion being tax deductible. As a thank you, supporters receive tangible benefits like discounted or free admissions and invites to members-only events (Members Only jacket not required), and without even realizing it, you turn into an organization’s ambassador. My husband and I are dedicated members of the Little Theatre, Downtown Rochester’s legendary art-house theater. The Little is a product of the Little Cinema Movement in the early twentieth century and has focused on showcasing American independent and foreign films, visual arts, and music for the greater Rochester community since its opening in 1929.
If you’re looking to get involved in a focused way without investing major financial or time resources, think about how you can donate your talent. Donating your talent means sharing your skillset with organizations that have a need. You can do this by serving on a nonprofit committee, taskforce, board of directors, or as an individual volunteer. If you have expertise in areas like strategic planning, marketing, finance, or law, there are local nonprofit organizations that could greatly benefit from your expertise! When I joined New York Kitchen (formerly known as the New York Wine & Culinary Center) as the nonprofit’s executive director, I was forthcoming in telling everyone that complex spreadsheets and profit and loss statements were not exactly my jam, because I’m not a numbers person. I was fortunate to have the support of a number of volunteer board members with backgrounds in finance who were willing to share their talents and teach me their ways while I grew my skills. These career professionals also stepped up to the plate to serve on our newly created Success Task Force (a creative spin on the standard “finance committee,” because I’m a glass half full kind of gal).
Consider attending a fundraising happy hour, gala, garden party, or fashion show in support of a local nonprofit. Not only does a portion of your ticket purchase benefit the organization, but these events almost always have exciting opportunities to give once you’re there—I’m a sucker for a silent auction or raffle and on a bit of a hot streak if I might add!
Workplace charitable giving programs
Employees value working for a socially responsible employer. Programs like corporate donation matching help to amplify an employee’s impact, often doubling their donation to a cause they care about. While this isn’t feasible for all employers or employees, prioritizing volunteerism and organized opportunities to give back as a group are more inclusive and just as impactful. Be it spending half the workday together helping with fall cleanup in a community garden or donating your gift wrapping skills for a local holiday toy drive, this is my kind of team building (sans trust falls).
There are many more ways to do good within your community; these ideas are not meant to be all-inclusive or exhaustive, but more of an easy entry point to explore giving back. I look forward to cheering you on at a charitable event in the near future, but be warned, I do get competitive when a wine auction is involved!