By ANTONIA HERN & #193;NDEZ

The financial crisis has led to a perfect storm for charitable giving. How should one think about giving at a time when donations are down, investment losses are reaching all-time highs and demand for basic services is higher than ever?

Give smarter. Get more involved. Only then will you know that your money was well-spent.

Demand at food banks is up 41 percent in Los Angeles County. The jobless rate is 10.9 percent, nearly three percentage points higher than the national average in February, itself a 25-year high. Nearly half of the families the Union Rescue Mission serves are homeless for the first time in their lives.

Despite this new economic climate, there is some good news. Ten of the biggest foundations will keep their giving levels on par with 2008, and two will give more (Gates and MacArthur), according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. IBM and General Mills will give more, and General Electric plans to donate as much this year as it did in 2008.

At the California Community Foundation, we recently committed to retain our competitive grant-making in L.A. County at 2008 levels.

While it is encouraging that the giving levels of some donors, foundations and corporations have continued, the way we give needs to change to reflect new realities. Passive giving is pass & #233;. The time for "checkbook philanthropy" based on pure loyalty/obligation and habit has long gone. Consider these questions instead:

- How about maximizing the impact of your gifts by supporting those non-profits that have shifted their priorities to the new reality and are focusing on the meaningful difference they can make?

- Is the organization's leadership qualified to weather the current crisis?

- How is the organization maximizing its scarce donations in these times?

- Does it hold up to a cost-benefit analysis?

- Have you checked out the charity's board and how connected it is to the community it serves, its strategic plan, and whether its major achievements or progress are compelling?

- Have you visited the organization to see for yourself the work it is doing?

- To have the most impact, how about focusing on making larger, multiyear gifts that fund operating support to fewer organizations instead of giving piecemeal grants to many? This lets charities know you have confidence in the work they are doing.

Then go beyond the gift. Get involved and contribute your time and talents to one or more of the charities you support. There's no substitute for seeing, hearing and feeling for yourself the daily successes and struggles a non-profit goes through. People who volunteered two hours a week donated an average of $124,267 more than three times what nonvolunteers donated on average in 2007, according to a recent study by Bank of America and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

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