34 New Things: Write A Significant Cheque To Charity

Each year I make a list of new things I want to try.  Some are difficult, some are easy, some will make you question how I reached adulthood without doing them.  You can check out past adventures here


Reproductive rights and access to affordable health care have long been causes that I’ve felt capital P Passionate about.  I will put that bumper sticker on my car! I will wear that pin! I’ll do my best not to make dinner parties awkward by railing on about the failing of America’s healthcare system!So when I decided to make a triple digit donation to a charity I thought about the causes I hold dear and opted to make a donation to Planned Parenthood.

I literally googled “donate to Planned Parenthood,” checked some boxes, double-checked my auto-fill information, opted out of the newsletter, and clicked donate.

And I’m not sure what I expected.  Some sort of karmic, do-good-ery feeling?  (Which, for the record, is not a great reason to engage in charitable acts)  But I felt nothing. When I sent a package to some soldiers?  Lovely! When I paid off someone’s layaway?  I felt gooooood!

But, shockingly enough, typing some numbers onto a screen is not nearly as gratifying.

Maybe because I don’t actually receive services from Planned Parenthood anymore.
Or I didn’t write an actual cheque, with my actual hand.
Or I didn’t interact with anyone while donating that money.

What’s the lesson here?  I’m not really sure.  In the future, I think I’m going to pair my donations with real, in-person volunteer work and then write that donation check with an actual pen and hand it to a real, live human. How retro!

Do you donate to charity or volunteer?  How does it make you feel?  Any tips for increasing that good-karma glow?

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  1. Megan

    I actually just made a triple digit donation to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) and I was also a little disappointed at how easy it was, and then I wasn't sure if I should feel guilty for feeling like it was too easy to give away money and what does it mean that I wanted to revel in the process a little so that it might feel more meaningful to me or maybe I'd just have longer to self-congratulate, but that's not the point of donating; the point is to help children get vaccines for a neglected tropical disease.

    And then I just felt like I was overanalyzing the whole thing.

  2. Amber-Rose Thomas

    I think a big part of 'giving' is the sense of wellbeing we get out of it. We don't give people gifts ONLY because we think out BBF will love that scented candle – we do it because it makes us feel good to do something nice for someone else. It makes us feel a little more worthwhile I think, and there's nothing wrong with that!

    I think donating money online completely removes the human interaction, and the opportunity for the person you're donating to, to show gratitude for what you'd done. I mean, even if you sneakily pay for the person behind you in Starbucks then run away before they can thank you – you've seen who you're going to benefit – they aren't faceless.

    Perhaps volunteer for planned Parenthood or something similar? Then you can see what your money was really going towards and feel more karma-glow?

  3. Sarah Von Bargen

    I think you ladies are right. I mean, 80% of my impetus behind this donation was to contribute money to a cause that's important to me and 20% to feel good.

    Here's a really interesting Harvard study on the The Benefits (and Costs) of
    Self-Interested Charitable Behavior: http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/10-012.pdf

  4. And Kathleen

    Lately I've been donating to anyone that asks. (Not necessarily the man on the street corner with an iPhone and a cardboard sign … but sometimes). When I have friends fundraising by shaving their heads for cancer, I donate. When I have friends biking super long races to fundraise for AIDS, I donate. It makes me feel good when I can help a friend with their cause.

    I also have to admit that sometimes I feel bummed donating to something like United Way because I wonder how much of my dollars are going to unnecessary banquets or CEO bonuses.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      I think that's a good idea. Maybe it's better (and more fulfilling) to give several small donations to people/causes you're closely connected to, rather than a big chunk to a national organization.

    • Jenny

      1. Donate to support the cause or organization you believe in and do it in a way that is going to be the most convenient for the organization you're donating too. The less the organization has to spend soliciting and collecting donations and congratulating some anonymous person for their [probably] relatively small, one time donation is time NOT being spent doing that important work you're trying to support.

      2. Make yourself feel good about your donation by posting about it on your blog or other social media. Host a party where everyone donates to a cause and you can congratulate each other to your heart's content. It's not the organization's job to make you feel good about donating, although they will and do try. Let them spend their energy on really doing the work.

      3. Feel connected to a cause by volunteering and really getting involved, by serving on a board or running a campaign for an organization doing work you believe in. Separating this type of support from charitable giving is important because the person(s) organizing whatever volunteer activity you're participating in is probably not the person(s) responsible for accepting donations and although you think you're being awesome, you're just giving that person more work to do.

      So all that and all I'm really trying to say is please continue giving to charitable organizations, but keep your exceptions and ego in check.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      All good suggestions, Jenny! And, yes, I think it's very, very important to remember (and I'm saying this as a personal reminder to myself) that donating is about funding things that are important, not about making myself feel glowy.

      I love the idea of having a party. Some friends of mine have 'Kiva' dinner parties every few months and everyone gets together and checks on the programs they supported, if they can re-invest their money, etc.

    • Ashe

      Well, for what it's worth, in the nonprofit industry workers can't get bonuses. It's a violation of the 501(c)3 status! They have to remain accountable to the government, board members, and the constituents about how the funds are being used, so even while there are administrative costs (salaries and fundraising events included), please know that typically the funds aren't being used frivolously.

  5. Jessica

    I've donated some money. The most significant was for a friend and a start-up venture. It was set-up at a crowdsourcing site. I've seen how it has developed and I know how passionate this friend is.

    I also believe in micro-loans, to which I donate four times a year. They've come under some scrutiny and criticism but they are making a difference, primarily in women's rights and situation (a very good book on the subject is Half The Sky by Nicolas Kristof). Very little money (to me) can go a very long way.

    I don't know if I feel a sense of satisfaction. Maybe I do, but I don't necessarily say that I do donations. In the former: well, I've had dreams, too, that seemed (at the very least) to be unobtainable. To be able to help in a little way was well worth it.

    In the latter. There are people in this world who are far more worse off than I am. If 100 dollars or less, can help anyone improve their lives with leaps and bounds, that helps my world-view and sustains my belief in humankind. Also, micro-loan organisations are, I believe, fairly transparent. They tend to update information. Maybe not on the specific project one donated for but I'm fine with that. I can at least see that it's making a difference.

  6. Meredith Hainsworth

    I donate to several people and charities I am closely connected with on a monthly basis, and it comes right out of my checking account so honestly I forget about it most of the time. I understand wanting to feel good about your actions, and sometimes I do, but mostly I donate because I feel that it's my responsibility as a member of society and because I believe in the work that these people are doing. But I think if I was making a significant donation I would be disappointed if I didn't feel good afterwards.

    I agree with some of the other commenters that maybe if you kept your money local (give a check to the PP in your town instead of on their national website, a local clinic that does free checkups for school kids, etc) it might change how you feel about it. I've heard so many stories about how whatever national charity only donates (very small percentage) of what's given to them that it makes me hesitant to donate directly to a national charity. I prefer keeping my money local, and I feel like it does more good (although I could be way off).

    • Girliest Nerd

      I do the same thing – donations come out of my chequing account automatically and I forget about it.

      Sarah, I think what I take away is that when I hear a news story where that charity I donate to is involved I get that good feeling that I helped in a small way, where the old me would feel helpless and terrible. Whenever you hear about PP on the news you'll know you've helped.

      Heck, I'm going for the old pap smear soon at PP (as soon as I work up the nerve) and I thank you!

  7. *Abi*

    I donate money to my chosen charities (MCS, RNIL) by being a "member". Instead of one big lump sum, a little bit of money comes out my account every month. And I get physical news letters through my door from time to time which remind me of all the good stuff they do (and gives me that do-goodery feeling on the regular :D)

  8. Erika @ CHiMERiKAL.com

    Interesting. I'm a poor, poor grad student right now, so I'm not doing anything, but I really enjoyed Women for Women International for a while. What got me about them is that they did a monthly donation and they also connected you personally to who your money was impacting. If you wanted, you could even write to them and they would write back. They'd also let you know about their progress. I think that personal touch makes it feel more real or grander or whatnot.


  9. Denver Galea

    This year one of my goals was to regularly (once a month) by a copy of the Big Issue (it's a magazine here in Australia that homeless people sell for $6 and for every issue they sell they get to keep $3).

    I guess this has made me feel satisfied because I'm buying directly from the homeless person my money is going towards to help. It's only $6/month, but it means I can potentially contribute towards helping 12 people this year and it's affordable for me.

    I also get extra joy from the smiles on their faces when I stop and acknowledge them amongst all the people just walking by.

  10. Leigh

    Speaking as a former employee of several nonprofits, one of the ways to ensure that your donation gets to the right place and directly helps those in need is to restrict your donation. You can do this online as well as when you write a check, writing "RESTRICTED: [fill in name of specific program you want to help with]"

    Otherwise what most likely happens to your donation is that it goes in a big pool known as "General Operating" the administrative category that is absolutely critical for organizational functioning and includes salaries and other overhead that is nigh on impossible to fundraise for. This is not a bad thing, since this budget category is critical, but if one of your objectives in donating is to see directly someone helped from your donation, be as specific as possible.

    So, for Planned Parenthood, I might first start by Googling my local PP, then seeing what specific programs they offer to specific populations. When I donate, I'll indicate that this amount is restricted. Any good nonprofit will follow up with a tailored thank you indicating that your money has gone towards what you desired. If you, you can call and they should be able to track your donation and confirm what line item it was assigned to. The better the nonprofit, the more transparent they are to their donors.

    My example: for two years I worked for a nonprofit which serves at-risk families and children. I wanted to donate specifically in order to bulk up their toy selection at the center. So I wrote restricted, indicating my desire. They wrote back to me, with full descriptions of the toys they bought with my money! This is not possible always, but it's a nice feeling.

  11. Cristin

    A big part of it, I think, is that everyone likes to see specifically who/what their money is helping. For example, donating to a national food bank feels different than giving a homeless person a sandwich. And even though you know your money is going to help homeless people get food when you donate to the national charity, you don't feel as good as seeing a guy in front of you say "thanks for the sandwich" (even though that might be more self-serving).

    I think people like to know the stories of other people. For me personally, I've felt a lot more helpful when I donated clothing to a family whose house burned down (something that cost me $0) than I did when I made a triple digit donation to a gigantic charity.

    Coincidentally, I work for Planned Parenthood and since I work in admin (not the clinic) sometimes I feel like I'm not helping people because I don't interact with patients, as silly as that seems.

    I don't know that donating to a big organization is better or worse than donating to an individual but I agree it definitely feels different.

  12. Sarah Von Bargen

    These are all such great, smart, well thought out responses! I'm always so flattered that such insanely awesome people frequent this blog! <3

  13. Anonymous

    I get the biggest do goodery feeling at tax time when I add up all the charity contributions from the last year. It's awesome to see that $30/month to NPR and that one time library donation or whatnot add up to a decent amount.

  14. Anonymous

    I just got a letter from the Seattle Humane Society, and even though I don't live in that area (or state) anymore, I looked at my sweet adopted cat and decided that since I just got a brand new well-paying job, I could afford to donate. How's that for a sentence? Although, when I first adopted her, I asked if I'd receive 'sad animal stories' if I donated (in addition to her fee), and they said "no." Liars! They've obviously since tracked me down to my new address and continued to send me sad-but-maybe-happy-ending animal stories. Cheers!

  15. Vikki

    Go you Sarah, I do know what you mean about writing a cheque though, its maybe not as personal. I started doing some corperate sponsorship stuff at work where we gave our chosen charities some money each year and then our employees got a day out of work to volunteer with them. That seemed to work really well as after the day was over everyone felt really good about donating their time & the fact that the company had given some monetary support as well.

    I would really recommend volunteering with something like habitat for humanity. I did a day with them which was really hard work but it was so rewarding (the people hoping to move into the house even invited us to stay when it was finished!). Anyway you did awesome even if there was no kaboom moment 🙂

    Vikki x (extra kiss for Putin x)

  16. Jessica

    And maybe one doesn't need that aha and eureka-moment with donations? Perhaps not feeling that wow, I'm great!, is a good thing? Meaning you are far more involved in the world than in yourself.

  17. Secret Squirrel

    Thank you for being so honest Sarah, about the 80/20 perception for you, of doing the right thing but also how it makes you feel. I get the clear direction from other commenters who no doubt work up close with charitable work, but I think it is important it makes you feel good, and that you use a 'vehicle' to publicise donations (as someone suggested, linking to the charity on facebook etc), because this can act as a nudging for others who perhaps could do more charitable work, or who have the capacity to make more donations…

  18. Anonymous

    I'm 3 weeks into my first real job, as a member of a fundraising team for a children's charity. I came in with more internet marketing experience, and they do good old direct mailings, so I was pretty amazed at just how many people still love to write out monthly checks for kids they sponsor! I assumed it was a generational divide that would start to phase out, but after reading this I wonder if these snail mail folks aren't on to something. I certainly love reading the sometimes very sweet notes they'll scribble on the bottom of their donation slips! 🙂

  19. Rachael

    I've been volunteering with a non-profit for ten years (this summer is my 10th anniversary) and it is exhausting but highly rewarding, especially since I am helping kids who are similar to myself (same health issues)

  20. alyssa

    I donate to PP, too! I think I may need to update my donation with them, though. I'm a little behind on all of my yearly donations.

    I also donate to my local member supported radio station. They're part of the NPR network (the World Cafe series is hosted by my local station) and do so much to support the music scene in my city. Since I listen to them every day, supporting them with $10-$20/month is my way of saying "thanks for not sucking." Every time they do a membership drive, I get a giddy feeling, knowing that I've helped them bring down their overall funding need ever so slightly. I also end up holding my breath on the last day of the drive and wondering why I'm not a millionaire so I can re-donate to them!

    I've also found Kickstarter to be an easy way to donate to some really awesome things. I've helped two friends record music, one friend publish the webcomic he runs as a graphic novel, and a local bakery publish a recipe book (still in the works, but I'm so excited for it!). The webcomic guy is running another campaign to publish volume 2 of his comic and has been nominated (and even won) several local awards for the series! I think Kickstarter gives me the most satisfying feeling because I'm usually helping friends or local initiatives and I know that my money is making the project possible. And, I won't lie, the bonus of getting a small return of my investment never hurts. 😉

  21. Jenn Rowell

    Having worked for a nonprofit, donations are great, they pay salaries of dedicated staff and also provide services, but what we really needed was people to engage. To help. To do something. I do donate to a handful of nonprofits/causes I believe about and know that the money mostly goes to services and programs versus overhead costs.

    But what I've found to me a bunch better way to donate is to get involved. I always did a lot of volunteer work in school and now that I'm a grown up with some skills, I donate my time/skills to a few nonprofits that I really like, know their people well and believe in their cause. I help them with social media and marketing and help spread the word. I've had to cut back on donating my monies since we just bought a house and I have a lot of my own bills to pay, but I always feel much better helping nonprofits I love accomplish a big goal, organize a great event or promote their cause.

    Also, my all time favorite is still my birthday a few years ago. I reported on military/vets issues in the state and knew the new American Legion post was struggling. As a reporter, I couldn't do their marketing for them, but I decided to throw my birthday party at the Legion post. It was the most business they'd had, maybe ever, and it brought a lot of my military friends, of all ages, to see the post and get to know what was there and it was maybe the best birthday ever. Other than my Little Mermaid party when I was 10. They were so happy that it made me so happy I think I cried.

  22. Janice

    I read this article (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130820135034.htm) today, and it reminded me of this post. It turns out that there's actually science behind the lack-luster way you felt after donating to a cause you care so much about. Donations feel more special when they foster a social connection, like donating to a friend who is running a race for a charity. Interesting!

  23. stacey*

    clicked through to this post from your habitat from humanity post (which i really enjoyed!), and thought i would add my thoughts… i'm a christian, and although i am a huge advocate for volunteerism and donating and generosity because i think it is simply the right thing to do in our human experience, i do realize that some of this is informed by my faith. jesus taught clearly that we are to give to the poor, and give to those who ask of you, that if you have are ina position to give, it is simply the right thing to do. one thing that has always stuck out to me about the way he talked about this, is that our generosity is to be a result of a relationship with an individual in need – our monetary or physical gift should be secondary to our presence and solidarity with them.

    anyways… all of this is to say that sometimes giving through websites etc can feel like something's missing because in my opinion: it is.

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