How to lower the heat when pressured to donate

  • Individuals gave $282 billion to charitable organizations in 2016, more than corporations and foundations combined.
  • Some donors feel pressure — whether self-imposed or external — to contribute more.
  • Sticking to an annual plan helps you make better donation decisions.

As you rush to get your charitable donations in before Dec. 31, don't forget to think about a giving plan for 2018.

While it might sound like just one more thing to add to your to-do list, experts say there are good reasons for it. For one, taking time to evaluate your giving is a good gut-check that you can afford to part with that cash. It also can help alleviate pressure — whether self-imposed or external — to give.

"If you give to everyone who asks you to give, there's no real value in that," said Edward Kramer, a certified financial planner with Abacus Planning Group in Columbia, South Carolina. "If your heart isn't in it, you really miss out on the joy of giving. You're only giving because someone asked."

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Camille Tokerud | Getty Images

By and large, Americans are a charitable bunch.

In 2016, total donations reached $390 billion, with the bulk coming from individuals ($282 billion), according to Giving USA. That's more than three times the $77.83 billion given by corporations ($18.55 billion), and it exceeds foundations ($59.28 billion).

The top three categories getting most of donations last year were religion ($122.94 billion), education ($59.77 billion) and human services ($46.8 billion).

Despite individuals' generosity, giving can be a source of stress for donors. Financial advisors say some clients simply struggle to say no, and others face pressure from the organization itself.

Where the charitable dollars go

Religion $122.94 billion
Education $59.77 billion
Human Services $46.80 billion
Foundations $40.56 billion
Health $33.14 billion
Public-society benefit $29.89 billion
International affairs $22.03 billion
Arts, culture and humanities $18.21 billion
Environment/animals $11.05 billion
Individuals $7.12 billion
Source: Giving USA 2017: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2016

For many people, requests for donations come in the form of mailed solicitations or phone calls. Some wealthy donors are approached in a more personal way, like being invited to meet for dinner to hear about a particular fundraising effort.

If you're among those who feel pressured, the best defense is a good offense — that is, a predetermined annual giving plan that you evaluate once a year.

The first step in making a 2018 giving plan is to reconnect with why you make charitable donations in the first place.

"When we make financial donations out of habit or pressure, our heart is not tied to the donation," Kramer said. "So, why do you want to make a donation?"

Once you make that determination, figuring out how much you plan to give can become more fulfilling. To arrive at that number, take a look at your past level of giving and your current financial means.

Charitable contributions in 2016

Giving by individuals $281.86 billion
Giving by foundations $59.28 billion
Giving by bequests $30.36 billion
Giving by corporations $18.55 billion
2016 charitable giving total $390.05 billion
Source: Giving USA 2017: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2016

Once you zero in on a planned annual total, divide it by 12 and include the amount in your monthly budget.

The rest requires follow-through on your part, with a promise to yourself that you'll re-evaluate your plan a year from now.

"Following a systematic and disciplined approach to giving may remove the pressure … since you know who you are giving to and why you are giving," Kramer said.

If you don't want to rely on your ability to set aside the amount each week or month, consider automating the process as much as possible. Much like contributing to a retirement plan, sometimes it's best to make the money disappear from your checking account without you needing to take action.

"Following a systematic and disciplined approach to giving may remove the pressure … since you know who you are giving to and why you are giving." -Edward Kramer, Abacus Planning Group

Remember, too, that if you itemize your deductions on your tax return, donations to charitable organizations will remain deductible under the recently passed tax bill set to take effect Jan. 1.

Be aware, however, that beginning in 2018, the total value of all your available deductions would need to be greater than the new, higher standard deductions under the legislation — i.e., $24,000 for married couples filing jointly — or you won't benefit from the deduction for charitable giving. Because of that, experts say it's worth considering giving more in the remaining days of 2017 while the deduction could have more value to you.

However, most donors don't take a deduction for their charitable contributions: Federal data show that in 2016, taxpayers claimed $57.55 billion for their donations, with most of the deductions going to higher earners. That amount is less than a quarter of the $282 billion in donations made by individuals last year, according to Giving USA.

If you do think you'll continue to itemize under new tax law, there are a couple of changes that affect charitable donations.

As of 2018, cash gifts to qualifying charities are deductible up to a ceiling of 60 percent of adjusted gross income, an increase from the current 50 percent. Also, the legislation eliminates the deductibility of payments made to a college in exchange for tickets to a game or seating rights at a stadium.

Regardless of the tax treatment of your donations, getting a 2018 giving plan in place will make it easier to respond to additional requests for donations if the pleas come mid-year.

"Simply tell them that you plan for gifts in December of each year and you will consider making changes at that time," Kramer said.

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