This time last year, my brother Jon and I had just begun cleaning personal belongings out of my father’s house. Dad had recently passed on, leaving all his worldly possessions in place, as if he’d been spirited away in the night—which is close to what happened. As we sorted Dad’s clothing, bric-a-bric, and books to sell or donate, we also worked our way through the paper evidence of his regular charitable giving.
He’d acquired countless notepads bearing his name, personalized return-address labels, and greeting cards received as “free gifts” in thanks for his donations. Swag filled boxes, desk drawers, and closet shelves.
As we recycled and donated what we could, and shredded what we should, I remembered when Jon and I had encountered these items before. We’d been helping Dad with his investments and banking. He’d reached an age and condition where he couldn’t understand the many financial statements he received each month.
We asked Dad how he’d acquired so many tokens.
“Oh, those,” he said. “I send them five dollars and they mail me all those things.”
Jon and I exchanged glances. Five dollars? Wouldn’t the administrative costs associated with a gift of that size outweigh its value?
Dad saw our look. “If everyone gave five dollars regularly, those groups would be rolling in it.”
He had a point. As a former nonprofit director, I know how important small, monthly gifts like my Dad’s are to an organization’s budget. Groups who do the heavy lifting in the arts, environment, human and animal rights, and more count on regular gifts. Even the small gifts become dependable income, which also help build a real sense of shared mission.
When I was raising my daughter Rose, our personal funds were thin at times, but we had a giving practice for years. Somewhere we had read about the power of giving a monthly cash amount to groups we wanted to support. Such outflow, we were told, would increase our own prosperity.
Like water, which loses oxygen, volume, and flow when impounded, wealth decreases when it’s simply held. Circulation matters in all living systems, and money (a human system) is alive. Also like water, every droplet adds to the whole. (There is, as well, a scientific basis for how giving increases our sense of well-being; see below.)
Rose and I worked out our budget, figured a significant amount to give each month (significant to us, that is), and donated it.
The act of giving became a highlight of our month. We’d sit down and ponder which group needed our help in that moment. Often we gave to the local pet shelter, or Rose’s school, or groups leading the community in arts or ecology. Our donating cash didn’t take the place of volunteering. We did that, too. Both acts are needed. (As are non-monetary gifts of self and love; see below).
I don’t know if our practice increased our prosperity, but we did manage to live independently and in good health on my single-parent salary. We always had enough. Best of all, Rose grew up to be generous and thoughtful in her giving.
This week, when “thanks” and “giving” are as linked in our vocabulary as “turkey” and “pumpkin pie,” giving season is upon us. Our mailboxes and email streams are rich with requests to give our monetary wealth. November and December are huge for charities, which receive a third of all their annual donations in December and fully 12 percent in the last three days of the year.
Though I still prefer to give in monthly, bite-sized amounts—now on auto-pay—I’ll be checking my accounts to see how else I can make a difference.