Despite bad times, there are still some do-gooders out there

charityI don't know if anyone else has noticed, but amidst the usual doom and gloom in the news, there have been some uplifting tales of do-gooders making headlines for the way they've been giving money to the less-than-fortunate.

It's been welcome news for the nonprofit industry. According to Sandra Miniutti, vice president for Charity Navigator, which evaluates the health of 5,500 of the nation's largest charities, the latest numbers that exist -- for 2008, with 2009 numbers being released this summer -- charitable giving dropped 6% as the recession heated up.

"That's the biggest drop in fifty-some years of tracking this data," says Miniutti.

But the following three folks apparently haven't gotten the memo that we're giving less these days.

Reed Sandridge
The Washington Post recently profiled this 36-year-old. He's been giving away $10 to strangers every day since Dec. 15, 2009, and he plans to continue for a full year. By the time he's done, he'll have given away $3,650. What's even more impressive, he started his philanthropic program shortly after he was laid off -- and he's still laid off. He blogs about his "year-long journey of altruistic giving," and his Web site is a fascinating read, since he's been sharing each story behind every person to whom he gives $10.

Sandridge's $10-a-day plan will be up on Dec. 16, and as the Post said, "he hopes he will network his way to a salary again long before he runs out of cash." Keep your fingers crossed.

On his blog, Sandridge commented on the avalanche of e-mail he's received since the Post article and a subsequent NPR story ran: "99% of what I have received is extremely positive, and I am trying to get caught up replying to all the e-mails." Makes me wonder what the 1% of commenters wrote that wasn't positive.

Betty Londergan
Londergan had received a modest-sized inheritance from her father, according to a story about her in The Huffington Post, and she decided it would be a nice legacy for her dad if she gave the money away. So she came up with the idea of offering $100 a day to various good causes. She, too, is blogging about it at an engaging site she calls WhatGives365 that was, at least in part, inspired by the movie Julie & Julia.

In the movie, which was based on real life, Julie blogs about her attempts to cook all 524 of the recipes in Julia Child's classic cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." After seeing the movie, Londergan wondered what she would blog about it, if she had a blog, and suddenly it all came together -- she would blog about giving away her father's inheritance to charities.

Launched on Jan. 1, Londergan's blog chronicles her daily $100 donation to various nonprofits and good causes, and of course, she hopes (as she has made clear on her blog) that she inspires others to give money to these or other deserving places. Sandridge, too, has echoed similar sentiments on his blog.

Albert Gubay
It's true that if you're a billionaire and you give away half your fortune, you're still pretty darn rich, which means your generosity, in a way, might seem a little less impressive than Reed Sandridge's or Betty Londergan's. But this is an inspiring and amusing story nonetheless.

Gubay, 82, is a British billionaire with a net worth of $1.1 billion. He's been in the news lately because Forbes reported that he's put his business empire, worth about $690 million, into a charitable trust. When he dies, half of the money will go to causes that the Catholic Church chooses; the other half will go to causes chosen by the trustees.

Gubay wasn't always wealthy. He started out as a candy seller in Wales after World War II, and a rather broke one at that. Back then, he said he made a promise to God that if he ever became rich, he would give half his money to the church.

It took awhile, but Gubay transitioned from selling candy to selling food in general. He ended up making a fortune in real estate as well as with a discount grocery store chain called Kwik Save (which was acquired by another supermarket chain some time ago).

In a 1997 TV documentary, Gubay explained his vow this way: "I borrowed 100 pounds and made the pact with God: Make me a millionaire -- and you can have half of my money." Now, Gubay isn't just being true to his word; he's demonstrated that it clearly pays to make God your business partner.

What about you?
If you're reading this and thinking, "Gee, this is all well and good, but I don't have billions of dollars, or even $10 a day that I can give to charity," but you'd like to ramp up your giving, Miniutti of Charity Navigator has some advice.

"I think the first thing people should do is be proactive," Miniutti says. "Most people wait for a charity to contact them or a friend to say, 'Hey, I'm running in this race. Can you sponsor me?' I think we could advance more change in this world, if we all sat down at the beginning of this year and thought about our philanthropic goals. Do you want to support breast cancer awareness? Or breast cancer research? Or fund mammograms for impoverished women? There are over a million charities out there. There are some that are definitely doing the type of work you want to support."

But what if you don't know a lot about a charity and want to make sure your dollars are going to an efficient, strong organization that's actually doing a lot of good vs. a floundering nonprofit that's paying the staff but doing little else? If the charity is a relatively large one (one of the top 5,500), you can learn more about their financial health at Charity Navigator. Some reputable organizations will spend up to 40% on their overhead, but the most efficient seem to have 25% toward overhead and administrative costs and 75% to their charity's mission. (One caveat in the 25/75% guideline is museums, says Miniutti, since they tend to have a lot of costs that most nonprofits don't have, such as paying for security and air-conditioning.)

It may not sound glamorous, forking over money that will at least in part fund the salaries of a charity, but as Miniutti says, "A nonprofit has to pay the electric bill like anyone else."

If you're completely at a loss as to who to donate to, Miniutti suggests you remember places like your local homeless shelter, utility assistance program and food banks. "Just as there has been a big spike for demand, these places are seeing less money. In fact, many have seen their own donors become recipients," says Miniutti. "If people have $20 to give, thinking of supporting a charity like that would be most beneficial right now."

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit."
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