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4 Steps to a Charitable Holiday Season

Our philanthropy expert Craig Styles shares how he’ll prep for the holiday season, from a charitable game plan to measuring his impact.

Every year, when I go home for the holidays, I find myself thinking about my family’s values, my neighbors and my community. Over a plateful of my dad’s roasted turkey and my mom’s legendary bourbon mashed sweet potatoes, I’m more than just grateful—I’m inspired to give back.

This is a major time of year for charitable giving, as people around the country think about helping those whose Thanksgiving tables may not be so bountiful or who may not have so many gifts under the tree (not to mention other basic necessities). The annual campaign #GivingTuesday has really gained in popularity as a “holiday” dedicated to charitable giving that falls on the Tuesday after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Originally founded in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y in Partnership with the United Nations Foundation, #GivingTuesday raised $177 million online last year for charities all around the country.

Most Americans don’t give just because of tax benefits, but it’s also good to remember the tax deadline for charitable donations is December 31st. That means that if you want to deduct your charitable donations for the 2017 tax year, you’d need to actually make those donations while it’s still 2017.

Here’s my giving season checklist:

1. Check in on my annual giving budget

I divide my philanthropic dollars into four buckets: 

a.       Core giving: Areas I’m really passionate about. For example, I primarily focus on educational causes.

b.      Discretionary giving: Donations at the request of other people, like if a buddy is running the New York City Marathon in support of a certain nonprofit and I want to show my support.

c.       Emergency giving: Reactive contributions like disaster aid following events such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

d.      Miscellaneous: Causes I want to support even if they’re not in my official focus area, like an alma mater (if my core focus weren’t education) or another organization outside my stated “core.”

If you don’t have an annual philanthropy budget, now’s a great time to create it. Take a look at your past giving patterns: How much did you give to your core causes last year, compared to discretionary giving when people asked you? Do you feel good about that breakdown?

If you already have a charitable budget, this is a good opportunity to see whether you’re on track.

2. Jump on any end-of-year matching opportunities

Charitable matching is basically free money for the causes you care about. For example, Morgan Stanley matches its employees’ charitable contributions during the holiday season, and I’m definitely planning to take advantage. 

To see if your company offers matching, ask an HR representative, your manager or someone who’s been at the company a while. Ask if there’s a minimum amount you have to give to achieve the match and when the matching gift will be made, as sometimes there’s a delay before companies actually send out the checks to your charities of choice. 

If your job doesn’t offer this perk, ask your favorite organizations if they have any matching programs. Often, these are called “challenge grants.” For example, I contribute to my alma mater, Villanova, where one family has offered to match the donations of young alumni who give over a certain amount. So, ask your favorite charities, “Do you have any matching opportunities or challenge grants available?” 

3. Organize my receipts

I’m a bit of an Excel junkie, so I keep a spreadsheet of my charitable contributions, enabling me to see how my giving has changed over the years. It’s also how I remember where I’ve given, so I can follow up and see how various programs are doing. And, of course, it’s how I stay organized for tax time.

If you’re hoping to deduct your charitable contributions, you’ll surely appreciate organized record-keeping when it’s time to file. 

I’ve found that the easiest method for me is to stash paper receipts into a folder labeled “2018 Tax Docs” by my desk, and file any online receipts into a “Tax” folder in my email inbox. Then I note my contribution amount in my spreadsheet, so I have all the info in one place—and I won’t have to trudge through receipts later on just to figure out how much I gave. 

If you prefer a techier approach, you might enjoy an app like ItsDeductible, which is owned by TurboTax and can automatically port over your contributions to the tax filing software when you’re ready to file. 

4. Take stock

When all is said and done, I ask myself, “How did this year’s giving season go? Do I wish I had done anything differently?” Then I make changes accordingly for next year. 

I make a note to follow up with the organizations I’ve donated to so I can understand the impact of my gifts. When the annual report comes out, usually in the next calendar year, I also make sure to read it. Annual reports typically share concrete data like how much the organization is spending on overhead as opposed to program costs, in addition to sharing human stories. For me, that’s the difference between “Hmm . . . I know they fund animal rescue” and, “They rescue 1,000 dogs and cats each year.” It helps me put a face to my giving.

This year, as our end-of-year responsibilities stack up, holiday invites start rolling in and gifts begin to arrive, I hope you’ll join me in taking stock of how much we do have—and how we might share it with others.

Ready to invest in what matters to you?

MORGAN STANLEY ACCESS INVESTING