Proactive Charitable Giving: How to Make the Most of Your Donations

The silent auction at your children’s school, your sister’s breast cancer walk, the charity gala your neighbor organizes …

There is no shortage of worthwhile causes in need of your money.

There’s nothing wrong with reactively writing a check when you’re asked, but if you want to maximize your charitable giving, it pays to take a proactive approach.

“People tend to give without knowing much about an organization, and their money goes all over the place,” says Susan Weiner, a senior vice president at Strategic Philanthropy, a Chicago organization that helps donors plan their charitable giving. “If you were to do an analysis of a donor’s interests and passions, very often their giving is not aligned.”

Find a cause that speaks to you

As the president of the Junior League of Evanston-North Shore, Winnetka mother Emily Marshall spends a lot of time selecting non-profits for her chapter to support. She encourages new philanthropists to start by donating to causes to which they have personal connections—an issue that affected a loved one or an organization that helped them in the past.

You will find plenty of groups that focus on everything from homelessness to the environment to women’s equality, working right here on the North Shore. Marshall reminds donors not to forget smaller community organizations. “Since 2008, the changes in economy have impacted smaller non-profits, which rely heavily on individual donations,” Marshall says.

Small organizations usually don’t have big budgets to create a brand image like a large not-for-profits such as Red Cross, but many are doing meaningful work right in our own backyard. For a comprehensive listing of local non-profits, Marshall recommends The Volunteer Center.

Treat donations like investments

Laura Zumdahl is the vice president of non-profit services at Donor’s Forum, an organization that provides education, resources and networking opportunities for Illinois philanthropists. Zumdahl says you should treat your charitable contributions like your investment portfolio. That means that once you identify not-for-profits you want to help, you should research them. Begin by scouring the organizations’ websites, then research them on sites like and, watchdog groups that evaluate non-profits’ on metrics like financial health, leadership and program efficacy.

If you’re donating a large sum, Zumdahl says you should even visit the organization and meet with its leaders. “I always encourage folks to contact non-profits. They really want to talk to you and share what they are doing,” she says.

The value of ‘sweat equity’

The best way to make sure your money is being put to good use is to become actively involved with the non-profit.”Match your dollars with some sweat equity,” Zumdahl says. Volunteer, join the board of directors, or consider donating your professional skills like legal or accounting services on a pro bono basis.

Give a little – what’s your favorite North Shore non-profit?