The Art and Heart of Giving

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel overwhelmed by the news the last few days?

First, it was the double tragedy of the Myanmar cyclone. More than 100,000 feared dead and more than a million homeless, and the government (and I use the title loosely) is more interested in maintaining a tight grip of control than alleviating suffering.

Then the earthquake in China. More than 12,000 people are dead, many of them children.

Meanwhile, in the background, the silent tsunami of sharply rising food prices threatens to kill thousands of people before year's end, thanks to a potent mix of drought, rising gas prices and corn and soy being diverted to make biofuels.

If you have ever given money to any charity at any time in the past, chances are your mailbox (the real one, where you get paper things) is going to be inundated the next few weeks with heart-tugging appeals. Money is needed, and being an American, you have more than most people in the world. You want to help -- but how do you make the right choices?

That was the question posed by Jen at
Conversion Diary a few weeks back. It sparked a fascinating discussion in the comments (as most of her posts do. If you don't already read her blog, go familiarize yourself; I promise you'll be impressed.) And that, in turn, got my husband thinking. He has worked with nonprofits for many years, and his experience has taught him tons of things about how to give -- and how not to give.

So, without further ado, I'm proud to present this guest post from Mr. Love Well (with edits, which he graciously allowed me to make). Our prayer is that it will help you think about how to give, where to give and your reasons to give.


Did you know 24,000 people die from hunger and hunger-related causes every day -- and of that number, 18,000 are children?

It's hard to wrap our Western brains around the number. So let's break it down. In the three minutes it will take you to read this post, 50 people will die from hunger and hunger-related causes.

Here's another too-big-and-horrible-to-comprehend statistic:
HIV/AIDS kills approximately 3.1 million people every year, leaving roughly 13 million children orphans in its wake.

Let's break it down again. In the same three minutes of post-reading, nearly 20 people will have died from this pandemic.

It's overwhelming, isn't it? Staggering. Horrifying. And those are just two of the many areas of colossal need on this planet.

It’s estimated there are more than 330,000 churches and approximately 2 million not-for-profit organizations in the U.S. alone. And if you've looked in your mailbox lately, it might seem like all of them are asking for your money.

Have you ever wondered how to decide who you should give your money to, how you can know that your money will actually be used wisely and effectively?

Having worked with not-for-profit organizations for many years, I frequently encounter such questions from charitable individuals who want to know how they can best make a difference with their donations.

Here are some tips for those of you who are asking similar questions.

The sheer amount of suffering and need in this world is indeed staggering. What can you do about it?

1) Keep in mind that you will never solve all of the world’s problems. Focus instead on making a difference one person at a time. Most of us don’t have the resources to help millions of people, yet all of us can make an impact on at least one individual. History is replete with amazing examples of how making a difference with just one person can cause far-flung ripples that impact countless others in ways we could have never imagined. I should know – I’m a former orphan myself, a street rat whose life was forever changed by the act of one person. (Go here to read more of my story.)

2) Become an advocate for those in need. Let others know about the hurt and need that is in this world, and encourage them to make a difference. While Americans are the most generous people in the world, not all Americans are generous. It’s a tragedy that so many of us are insulated -- fat and happy Americans who go about each day in blissful ignorance as to how truly good we have it. Do your best to educate your family and your friends on what's really happening out there.

What are some points to consider as you decide how to give, where to give or what organization to support?

1) The Great Commission outlines an order for the spread of the Gospel message, beginning locally and then moving out in concentric circles to eventually the whole world. That also serves as a good model for us in terms of our giving. Consider giving locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

2) For many, giving initiates with their local church. That’s a great place to start, particularly if your church reaches out to meet the needs of individuals both within the community and without. Having said that, there unfortunately are those who claim the Bible mandates we should give 10% of our gross income to the local church, and that giving to any other causes must be above and beyond that. Some denominations are so legalistic about this that they actually require tax returns and paycheck stubs to validate how much an individual/family should be giving. Those are man-made rules – not a Biblical mandate. Support your local church, cheerfully and generously, and determine between you and God how much to give – don’t be guilted by man-made rules.

3) As you look to give beyond your church, ask yourself about your passions. What really gets you? What moves your heart? What burden has God given you?

For example, while prevention of heart disease is clearly a worth-while endeavor, that’s not my personal passion. My passion is for those suffering from hunger and poverty – both because of my orphaned past as well as the frequent Biblical exhortations to help the poor, the widows and the orphans. So my passion leads me to support Food for the Hungry, a great organization that attacks the root causes of hunger and poverty by helping people help themselves and become self-sufficient.

One warning about following your passion: Don't give simply because you just received an emotional appeal in the mail.
Unfortunately, there are too many charlatans out there who can write the most heart-wrenching letters of pain and suffering, with most of the donations lining their pockets and very little going to any worthy efforts. Do your research. (More on this next.) Wait a few days before sending a check. Pray. Don't be manipulated. Give because it's right, not because you feel pressured.

4) You may have more than one passion, and therefore, you feel lead to give to more than one type of cause or mission. That’s wonderful. Give to more than one organization. However, be very picky about who you support.

Some good research tools as you consider organizations:
All will help you investigate and evaluate the efficiency of the various nonprofits out there.

Keep in mind that not all nonprofits will be reported on any one system, and no one resource is the end-all. For example, Charity Navigator awards stars as a way to measure efficiency, but that won’t tell you if an organization is effective. There are some very fine two-star organizations I would support before I would support some of their four-star organizations.

As a general rule, a well-run nonprofit should be sending at least 80% of all donations received into their mission, and they should be very straight-forward as to how funds are being used. Do a Google search on organizations as well, to see what stories surface about the nonprofit. If an organization has been in trouble or is questionable, a simple search might uncover that fact.

5) While every organization can use every dollar they receive, here’s something to consider. Many organizations today raise money by renting out their donor lists to companies who then sell these lists to other nonprofit organizations. That might seem a bit odd to you – why would an organization sell the names of people who support them to “competing” organizations who will then ask the same donors for money, seemingly taking away money the donor might give to the original nonprofit?

The logic? Nonprofit organizations only sell the names of their “least profitable donors.” Keep in mind that for many organizations, the average gift size of the checks they receive in the mail ranges from $12-$40. A $50 gift is therefore considered to be a substantial-sized gift, particularly if the donor makes such a gift two, three or more times each year. Accordingly, nonprofits typically only rent out the names of donors who make gifts under $50, keeping the names of the donors who make $50+ donations carefully under wraps. So if you want to limit the number of direct mail pieces in your mailbox, make fewer, but larger, gifts.

Want to test this? Pick two or three nonprofits Send each of them a $5 or $10 gift, and purposefully either misspell your name or use a fictitious name when you send in the gift. For example, if your name is Alex Johnson, send in one gift as Alec Johnson, another as Alexis Johnson, and perhaps the third as Adam Johnson. Note which misspelling you send to which organization. And then watch to see how much direct mail you receive in the months ahead from new nonprofits addressed to the various misspellings. A pattern will emerge.

6) Given that fundraising can be extremely expensive for nonprofits, help them out by making their fundraising more efficient. The larger your average gift size, the less mail an organization will typically send out to you. Again, that may seem odd, but organizations are sensitive to not bugging their more valued donors.

If you plan on supporting an organization for a long time, give them your email address. It’s far less expensive for an organization to send an email than to send a direct mail package.

As much as possible, make donations by check versus credit card, as it costs an organization less money to process a check gift versus a credit card gift. A $50 gift by check might cost an organization $0.20 to process the donation, but a $50 credit card gift might cost them $1.50 to process the donation. While studies show that donors who give by credit card are typically younger and send in larger gifts, both demographic variables extremely important to organizations and therefore they gladly accept credit card gifts, keep in mind a large credit card gift of $1,000 might cost your nonprofit $30 vs. the $0.20 for a check.

7) Finally, make it a point to set aside, if you can, $50 a month that isn’t earmarked for a cause. There are frequent times when you’ll encounter a need that is very real and very worthy – like when the Teen Challenge choir comes to visit your church – and by putting aside a gift each month, you’ll be able to respond to a cause you might not otherwise have had included in your budget. This means you can still keep to your budget (always a good thing), but you have something to give when you come across a worthy organization.

Of course, in the end, all the human-wisdom in the world can't equal the wisdom of God. So above all, pray about your donations. I can give you tips on the art of giving. Only God can help you with the heart.

Have questions I didn't answer? Or maybe I stirred up something you'd like to see addressed? Leave me a comment. My wife promises I can use her blog to answer them in the future. As long as I never hijack her blog again. (OK, so I added that last sentence.)


  1. You cleared up some questions for me on how non-profits work. Husband and I have basically supported the same half a dozen charities over the last 20 years. All other gifts are usually in response to a felt need or particular drive. But I'm challenged in this post to re-examine some things with a couple of those. Thanks.

  2. That was an excellent and very timely post. Each time I want to complain about how hard it is to be a mom, I think about what is going on in the world around me. Now, that is hard stuff.

    I'm going to encourage my husband to read this as well.

  3. Interesting on how the more money you give, the less they pester you.

    It flies in the face of logic.

    What an amazing, meaty post. A lot to think about and contemplate.

  4. This is a very helpful post. Thank you!

    One great point someone made to me about giving to causes is that there are lots of worldy (politically correct) causes that many people will give to, but Christians should try to rally around ways to meet needs while advancing the Gospel. So, we try to give to relief agencies that are meeting practical needs under the banner of Christ.

    In other news, I want you to know that God totally used your blog and a conversation with my friend to drive home this Ken Gire essay as a personal mission statement. I plan to blog about it..stay tuned!

  5. A lot to think about and very good information. It can be overwhelming to decide where to give our money.

    The only international organization I give to is Compassion. The other charities I enjoy supporting are local, the food bank through my church, the local woman's shelter, the Mis. Children's home...right or wrong, I feel better when I can actually see my money and my personal labors actual making a difference.
    I hate that feeling of just 'sending in a check' and not being able to do something.

    Your post has gotten me thinking how I may be able to make a difference for just one person in other parts of the world.

    I enjoy guest posts from Mr. LW!

  6. That was really helpful. Thanks for taking the time to explain everything, especially the part about your info getting sold to other non-profits! Weird!

    Kelly, I got your letter today at work. What a sweet surprise! I'm so glad we met through bloggityville!

  7. I love this post. I need to read it again !!

  8. Great post, Mr Love Well! I appreciated all you had to say, and I enjoyed reading your story.

  9. What a timely and helpful post. Thank you, Mr. Love Well. Lots to think about, indeed.

  10. Thanks for this. As a university student I never have money to spare, but I really want to be able to give. I have thus far restricted my giving to my local church, but I do not want to always do that, so I really appreciate these guidelines.

    You need your own blog.

  11. Excellent advice. Excellent. Thank you.