Several weeks ago, shortly after the Myanmar/Burma cyclone, I wrote about how I can easily hang up on charity telemarketers. This got me talking with my mother, whose generosity I admire, about how to respond to the immense need in the world and the great variety of charities out there.

One of the many things I admire about my mom is that she gives away most of her teaching salary. She and my dad have always lived comfortably on what he makes, so this extra salary is something she can use for herself. She chooses to use it for others.

As she describes it:

One day, I was wishing that I had more money so that I could contribute to some more charities. The next week, I was offered a job teaching Latin. I felt that God had given me the wish of my heart and resolved to donate half my income to charities.

I remember how excited she was about teaching Latin in the first place and how she would sit down with her checkbook and a handful of envelopes. But I also remember the response that came flooding in from charities. Requests upon requests from people she’d already donated to and from other charities who must have found her on a mailing list.

I did not show good judgment in choosing charities, following my feelings rather than checking. The result was that I kept getting more and more requests until what had been a pleasure became a burden.

I asked her to explain how she ended up organizing them:

I finally realized that I needed to rationalize my giving. I set up categories and chose charities in those categories to support.

For example, in the category of children’s diseases, I contribute to St. Jude’s Hospital; in the category of armed forces, to the USO; in the category of world hunger, to CARE and World Vision; in the category of microloans to women, to FINCA; in the category of firefighters, to our local firefighters; in the category of world medicine, to Project HOPE and Doctors Without Borders; in the category of cancer, the American Cancer Society; in the category of education, St. John’s College in Annapolis [her alma mater]; in the category of conservation, World Wildlife Fund

That seems to me to be a sensible way to approach things. She picked the causes that she cares most about and then gives one group she thinks is making a difference in each. She and my father also give to a number of charities as a couple.

It’s not a perfect system, however. Because the world is pretty screwed up and so are many of the charities that are trying to fix it.

For example, because she has a lot of categories, she can’t give as much as she’d like to any of them. As a solution, she sometimes considers giving to a group like World Vision, which provides education, disease care, micro loans, etc, all over the world. It doesn’t quite cover everything but it’s much broader than, say, St. Jude’s.

There are some organizations, she mentioned Easter Seals and the American Heart Association as examples, which she’d like to give to annually. It just takes more planning to figure out how to organize those.

Some associations, like the American Spinal Injury Association, have a good cause but (she says) don’t measure up well. In the ASIA’s case, they actually provide support to someone we know so she doesn’t want to stop supporting them since she can see the good that they do despite the problems.

And she’s still flooded by charities who’ve probably bought her name on a list of “people who donate.” She’s found getting them to stop sending her mail very difficult.

As I said before, there are many things I admire about my mother. Her intelligence, her willingness to help others (in very practical ways in everyday life, not just through charity), her refusal to give up even when faced with pain from illness and treatment, and her excitement about giving. When I was a little bit younger I was scared silly of growing up to be like my mom. Now I hope I’ll be like her in many many ways.

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Denise June 11, 2008 at 11:15 am

Great post, I’m busy deli.cio.using, kirtsying, stumbling and tweeting it.

Liz Henry June 11, 2008 at 11:36 am

I love to donate, but I sure hate the junk mail that results!

How many times I’ve donated 20 bucks somewhere and then getting big expensive-looking packets of paper in snail mail for the next 10 years. ACLU, PEN International, and Heifer International, I’m talking to YOU!!

Then as you say, some charities sell your name and address to make a quick buck. It’s maddening and so very wasteful.

Meg June 11, 2008 at 12:34 pm

Your mom teaches Latin?! That’s so cool. That was actually my plan for a while, but I realized that I just didn’t have the stamina to teach in the schools around here — plus I realized that I was using teaching as an excuse to study Latin in college and not the other way around. But as I’m learning, there are still plenty of other jobs for a gal with a classical studies degree and I don’t regret my major(s) one bit.

Aryn June 11, 2008 at 12:48 pm

The junk mail does get crazy. I probably have 1,000 address labels now, and I only send one or two pieces of mail a month.

I did something similar to your Mom, though, when I received an inheritance. I gave $500 to the Susan Komen Foundation (breast cancer being the reason for the inheritance), and then sent around $20 to a different charity each month after that.

If I had to do it again, I would choose one or two charities and give more to those.

Funny about Money June 11, 2008 at 1:15 pm

That is gracious and beautiful!

Your mom possesses a great deal more generosity and patience than I do. After a neighbor talked me in to going door-to-door to collect for the American Heart Association, I was just SWAMPED with telephone calls (which I truly hate) and mail begging me to do the same for this, that, and the other organization, most of which I’d never heard of and some of which turned out to be scams. They even came to my door to pester me! It was months before the onslaught slowed.

Since then I’ve been very careful. I’d rather give time and services to an organization (especially now that I’m single and earn only enough to support myself and prepare for retirement). But the truth is, most outfits don’t want your time and talent: they want your money. Whether I volunteer or give cash, though, I never share my telephone number!

Grace June 11, 2008 at 3:25 pm

My giving tends toward the local–the private middle school that turned my daughter’s academic life around; the theatre company that does “small” plays rather than the more popular musicals; the local women’s domestic violence shelter; and a food charity that provides boxes to poor families. I still get extra mail, but not so much. And they do NOT sell my name & address.

Clean Simple June 11, 2008 at 3:56 pm

Did you show your mom how to use a site like Charity Navigator to ensure that the organizations she gives to are using most of their donations for their intended purpose?

Good on your mom, she sounds like a peach!

mrsmicah June 11, 2008 at 3:57 pm

@Clean Simple, I’m not sure if I showed her that one or she already had one. I know I’ve talked with her about it.

plonkee June 11, 2008 at 4:58 pm

Excellent, I’m very much in favour of people donating to charity wisely. I feel I’m a little bit behind your mum, as I really only have 3 categories in which I feel motivated to give – poverty abroad, poverty at home and human rights.

deepali June 11, 2008 at 5:27 pm

Places like greendimes can show you how to get rid of the subsequent junkmail… (or you can pay them a small fee and they’ll do it for you, plus plant a tree).

Junk mail is one of the biggest reasons why I hesitate to donate to charities (I tend to give through people I know), so it’s nice that there is someone out there will deal with that problem for me. πŸ™‚

Susan June 11, 2008 at 9:45 pm

Cool story! And what a compassionate mother you have! A good example for all of us! πŸ™‚

We can’t contribute to every single charity out there (nor, do I believe we should), so it’s important to research the ones you like, learn how the money will be used, and decide on your top choices. I think your mother has a pretty good plan.

Dad June 11, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Besides the junk mail, the other problem is the phone calls. Charities are exempt from the do not call list. I try to encourage my wife simply to say no to causes that are not on her list. You can, if it’s true, say I already give to that cause and I don’t have any more to give at this time.

frugal zeitgeist June 11, 2008 at 10:59 pm

I’ve actually been working on something very similar myself: I’m going to increase my giving substantially after I pay my mortgage off next month, so I’ve been developing a list of categories and causes. Sites like and have been very helpful in helping me figure out which organizations use contributions efficiently.

Whenever I donate, btw, I always do it online and add a note stating DO NOT SELL MY ADDRESS TO OTHER ORGANIZATIONS.

Cath Lawson June 12, 2008 at 3:45 am

Hi Mrs M – It’s great that your mum gives so much and enjoys doing so. It’s just a shame that some of these charities take more by selling her address to others.

deepali June 12, 2008 at 11:20 am

So a simple way to not get phone calls is to not have a phone line. It’s worked wonders for me! πŸ™‚

Little Lugs June 15, 2008 at 10:17 am

I love it! I too used to cringe at the thought of becoming like my mother, but have increasingly looked to her for inspiration, particularly in the area of generosity and charitable giving. When she and my Dad were young & very poor, she donated her last dollar to their church’s holiday drive for needy families. It turned out that they were the recipients of the drive funds, and were so moved by the gift. Since then she has always found a way to give what she can, most often in the form of crafting for charity. She puts her considerable needlework skills to use making dozens of baby blankets and warm hats for shelters and hospitals in her town, and, inspired by her, I have started my own charitable crafting projects on a smaller scale, which in turn has moved friends of mine to do the same. Thanks, Mom!

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