So far we’ve talked about why you should give, how much you should give and how to choose the organizations you donate to. That’s enough to get you started in your giving program, but how can you make your charitable activities more personally meaningful?

Create a ritual for charitable giving

Simply increasing your donations won’t do it. The exact amount of money we give away doesn’t necessarily define how meaningful it feels. However, the rituals we use can make a big difference. Most good rituals have a beginning, middle, and end.

Charitable giving: A five part series on more effective philanthropy

If you do (or will start doing) most of your giving once a year, consider setting the context so you’ll be more mindful. You might start by reading an intention. Something like:
“Here I sit, in recognition that the world is broken and that I must help to repair it, that I have more than I need, and that others have less. I will do my duty to use what I have to repair the world and meet the needs of others as I can.” You could listen to a piece of music or even eat a special food. What symbolizes the values you hope to feel present with you? Perhaps you have never articulated quite why you give, what problems you see, what capacity you have to address them, or why you think you should. If not, maybe it’s worth doing some exploration of that. Maybe you explore through conversation, reading, art, or some other way. However, you explore, giving will be more valuable as you develop a vision for it and consider your why.

Start the ritual in a way which marks it off from normal life (reading, candle, music, whatever), then do your decision-making and execution, then bring it in for a close by creating a last part of the giving process before re-emerging into the everyday. Perhaps you light a second candle, play a different piece of music, read a different intention, sign a song, walk around the block, eat a special food, or make a certain movement. Whatever it is, it will help you demarcate the end of your giving ritual.

Bring your creativity to designing your ritual. It should use elements which you find meaningful whether from your family, your faith tradition, or something from your own story. We love helping clients identify something that fits into their family rhythms. For instance, some of our clients light shabbat candles every week so we helped them decide to take a moment before they light the candles to think about issues or suggestions of giving ideas that came up during the week and write them on a running list they kept nearby (but not too near!) the candles.

If you want to make decisions with a partner, friend, or family members, perhaps after the pandemic, schedule a nice meal at a restaurant to discuss it. Order dessert to associate the happy memories with the good work. Or during the pandemic, perhaps this is a good excuse for a phone or zoom call with a little more content to help you connect one-on-one with people you care about.

Do you need a ritual? Of course not! But it’ll probably help the experience be meaningful. If you don’t have one, that’s okay too and it should definitely not keep you from starting. Start and then figure it out in a future year.

Also, consider who you want to be engaged with on these issues. If you have kids you might also consider how to include them. One of the best teaching tools is modeling what you hope your kids will learn. Knowing you’ll need to explain your decisions to your kids over time might also help you make more generous decisions. Ron Lieber, an exceptional finance writer, wrote The Opposite of Spoiled which covers many questions about how to talk about kids about money, including giving. It’s well worth reading.

You might also consider the idea of a giving circle or other participatory philanthropy options. They can be structured in a lot of different ways, with varying levels of formality. One method is that people come together, commit to giving money (different amounts or all the same), and work together on researching/deciding but then write their own individual checks along with a group cover letter. Another model is to actually pool money together and then decide as a group which groups to donate to.

A third model is to work with groups like D.C.’s Diverse City Fund, where donors delegate the actual decision-making to a grants team made up of people from directly impacted communities rather than the donors deciding how much to give to whom. There is a very powerful idea built into this model. Just because people have been endowed with resources by an unjust society doesn’t mean they should get to decide the best use for those resources. Our lived experience strongly influences which issues we know and care about. In this view, people who are part of the communities most impacted have lived experiences that better prepare them for making those decisions.

Action steps

Your charitable giving will become more meaningful if you create a ritual around it. Consider establishing a special time and place to make your gifts. Add a small speech or prayer, reading, music, candles, or any other enhancements that will create a special place for reflection and thereby make your choices more meaningful.

Involve your children if you have them. It’s never too early to make charitable giving a part of life.

Consider joining a like-minded group of people who will help you explore charitable giving opportunities and share insights and experiences.

Charitable giving: A five part series on more effective philanthropy

Photo by Elvert Barnes