How to Make Charitable Giving About Passion and Purpose

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Molly Norton, wealth advisors seattleIn 2018, we welcomed Molly Norton to Brighton Jones. Molly is our first in-house philanthropic advisor to work with clients on their charitable giving strategies, ranging from evaluating river conservation organizations to identifying international groups that empower girls to go to school to encouraging kids to participate in giving back.

Here, Molly shares the most common questions, concerns, and myths around charitable giving, and offers a few tips to get started.

What is your favorite part of working with clients around their charitable giving?

After 20 years of working in non-profit program management and strategy, it feels like a dream to be on the funding side of the conversation. I can’t count the number of times I thought “I wish I could explain to donors …”, and now I get to do exactly that.

The best part for me is the incredible spirit of generosity and concern about our world that clients bring to the conversation. Some have never donated a dime and are still trying to figure out where to focus. Others know what issues move them and are ready to find the best organizations and make a plan.

Too many people make donations and think “Well, I guess that was a good thing to do,” when it can—and should—bring them so much more joy.

Helping someone define precisely what world they want to see their donations create, and then finding the organizations that are doing that work feels truly magical. The donor feels confident in their gift, and the non-profit now has another engaged advocate on their team. Too many people make donations and then think “Well, I guess that was a good thing to do,” when it can—and should—bring them so much more joy.

What questions are you asked most often?

Two things come to mind:

“How do I choose when there’s so much need right now?” and “How do I know which organization within a given area is doing a good job?”

Decision paralysis is real, and I understand how so many options without a clear way to navigate them makes it easier to “table it for later.” There are many great thought experiments to help figure out where to start, and ultimately if you can figure out what you’re most passionate about, you’ll be a more effective donor for that cause. It sounds trite, but so many of these issues are presented in silos although they overlap at various points in their trajectories. I don’t see it as a choice between, but rather a choice of where and when you want your impact to begin.

People understandably want to support the organizations that are doing the best work. But who defines “best work”? Well, you do for starters. If you believe change on a particular issue is going to come through policy and advocacy, but you’re funding an organization that focuses on direct services, you might feel a little frustrated.

Think through how you believe change will happen around an issue, and then work forward from there. There are no right or wrong answers, but it’s good to understand different aspects of an organization and how they align with the impact you want to have.

What’s the one conversation you would like to have with everyone?

Let’s reframe how we think about overhead. We look to our non-profit community to create these massive shifts in our world, but then penny pinch when they need the resources to do so. We want organizations that are employing lawyers and scientists to deal with immigration and climate change, and then thank them with entry-level salaries. We want development professionals to create compelling impact reports with data and visuals, but we want them to use donated, 20-year-old computers.

Think through how you believe change will happen around an issue, and then work forward from there.

If we want significant change, let’s invest in it. That’s why it’s essential to feel confident in who you’re giving to and why. Administrative costs are worth knowing and understanding, but let’s not begin the conversation at “I only give to organizations with a <10 percent overhead.”

What’s one thing someone can do to maximize both their confidence and their impact in charitable giving?

If you find an organization you love, go in for the long haul. People tend to give to an organization for a few years and then move on. If you find an organization that is doing good work, why stop?

I’m on the board of a family foundation that has funded some organizations for over a decade. At various times we’ve said “Should we fund them again? We’ve been funding them for years.” But that’s the wrong question. Are they still doing good work? Do we still believe in the leadership? Why cut off funding just because of some vague sense of enough time?

If you want to feel even more rewarded as a donor, cultivate a relationship of honesty where an organization can tell you when something they tried didn’t work, and they can still count on your support. When an organization is so scared of losing funders if it tries something and fails, it will stop innovating. And then where are we with those big changes we are hoping to see?

donate online charitable giving

What’s a question that has stumped you?

Donors looking to get a tax credit by sending money directly to people or projects abroad that aren’t non-profits. If you know what you are doing, it can be an incredibly efficient way to offer support. Unfortunately, unless there is some registration with a home government that can allow for an IRS procedure called an equivalency determination, it’s not going to happen.

What has been the most challenging thing you’ve taken on?

Starting the Brighton Jones Richer Life Foundation. It’s a big administrative undertaking. But more importantly, we want to be thoughtful about making sure we are creating an entity that provides our community opportunities to align their time and money with their values in a way that also maximizes impact for non-profits. It’s been an amazing, rich, and awesome experience that’s still in progress. When Laura Tarbutton, our philanthropic program manager, and I took 16 clients to Kenya in January, it was immediately clear how profound these experiences are for everyone involved.

What would you say to someone just starting out in charitable giving?

Don’t try to figure out what to do from behind your computer. Volunteer with different groups. Talk to directors. Learn about their challenges. Things will click in a more meaningful way than anything you can get out of an impact report. You’ll be happier because you’re out meeting new people and learning new things. It’s also a great thing to do with kids.

Speaking of kids, when should parents start getting their kids involved?

Now! My memories of my grandfather, who started our family foundation 50 years ago, are tagging along with him at community service events long before I was probably at an age to actually be “useful.” I remember painting a house for Habitat for Humanity, cleaning up woods along a river bank, but what I really remember is the comradery of the people who had come together because they cared about their community.

There are also simple things you can do at home: get a Moonjar to start the conversation about saving, spending, and sharing. Talk about current events. Many people are trying to figure out the right age to let their kids know about wealth. Of course, that’s a very personal decision depending on the family and the child. In my family, we talked about it from the very beginning—but always in the context of the obligations that came with that, and how we could each find our individual passions for giving back.

Reading Suggestions: Real Impact by Morgan Simon, Winners Take All by Anand Ghiridharadas, and Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva.

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