IMG_0666The arrival of annual mail appeal letters is as predictable as autumn in New England.

Each fall red, yellow, purple, and brown confetti leaves sprinkle the ground.  Cool dry air replaces warm summer humidity.  Morning sunrise looms later and by rush hour sunlight disappears.  Dedicated shorts and t-shirt types begin to sport sweaters and long pants.  As portrayed in Official Comedy’s “Pumpkin Spice: Official Movie Trailer,” pumpkin-flavored coffee, muffins, and beer get top menu billing.

Nature’s seasonal transitions mark time and direction.  Falling leaves announce the upcoming barrage of annual mail appeal letters.  Nonprofit organizations typically schedule letter delivery post-Thanksgiving, prior to Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza; before the end of year income tax deadline.

Late November inboxes and mailboxes swell with solicitations.  Donors are left to decide whether to give and if so how much.  Unlike ubiquitous falling leaves that get raked away, each annual mail appeal letter calls for attention and direction.

The best mail appeal letters feature compelling, heart grabbing, substantiated by statistics stories.  Letters concisely inform donors how their contributions make a difference.  Printing, including mail merge information, is accurate.  Personal, hand written extra bursts of “please give because…” notes are attached from friends of each mail recipient.

Though many causes are well presented, even carefully composed and personalized letters warrant scrutiny.  To do due diligence while avoiding “mail appeal overload,” here are 10 easy steps.

1. Craft a plan with the following considerations:

  • Budget money toward philanthropy.
  • Consider applying your skills as a volunteer.
  • Research charities or categories of service with missions that align with your interests.
  • Decide if you prefer to support local charities, national, international causes, or all.
  • Plan to make philanthropic decisions either as an individual or with family members.
  • If and when appropriate consider contributing in-kind gifts (i.e. pies if you’re a baker, signage if you’re a printer, legal work if you’re a lawyer), bequests (money or property in a will), annuities (fixed payments on investments), or an endowment (gift that provides a permanent source of income).

2. After you’ve narrowed the possibilities, be sure that the organizations that you   choose to contribute to are 501(c)(3), tax-exempt under the IRS code.  If in doubt search

3. Read the organization’s Annual Report.   Get a clearer idea of their programs, board and staff composition, and budget.  Be sure that you’re contributing to a strong, sustainable effort.  Annual Reports and IRS 990 forms are oftentimes posted on websites.  All 501 (c)(3) organizations must file an annual 990 form with the IRS.  This form is public and provides financial information. lists 990 forms.

The budget should list a mix of revenue sources.  If contributions are stopped from a reliable source, other funding mechanisms must be in place.  Funding sources might include: fees for service; membership fees; product sales; individual contributions; family, corporate, and community foundation grants; local, state, and federal government grants; corporate sponsorships and cause related marketing; and federated funds such as the United Way.

If the budget in the Annual Report reflects higher than expected administrative expenses, this could be cause for concern or might not necessarily mean that funding is misspent.  If a robust infrastructure exists, including necessary computer equipment and competent staff, those resources contribute to the organization’s strength.  If, however, the numbers seem unusually skewed, it merits further inquiry.

4. Does the organization have a Strategic Plan?  If so, how do they measure and track progress?  Are they planning to embark on a Capital Campaign?  If so, does the organization have the resources and resolve?

5. Talk to knowledgeable donors and Board Members.  What is their experience?  What is the culture of the organization?  Visit the organization if you have the time and inclination.  There’s no substitute for seeing what funding actually benefits.  If you have questions, contact the appropriate staff person.  Sometimes organizations have open houses to welcome prospective donors.

6. If feeling pressured into giving, it’s best to wait until you learn more to either contribute with peace of mind or not give at all.

7. If your company matches gifts, apply for your company’s contributions.

8. Consider contributing in honor or memory of someone.  If you choose to do so, inform the organization of the purpose and person.

If you wish to remain anonymous, make that clear to the organization.  If you want to be publicly acknowledged be sure to write your name exactly as you prefer.

9. Keep a receipt of your contribution for tax purposes.  Unless you receive something in return for your contribution, such as a dinner, your contribution is likely to be 100% tax-deductible.

Oftentimes the request letter will state that the gift is 100% tax-deductible.  If a credit card is used or the payment is made online with an online contribution service, it’s likely that the gift will still be 100% tax-deductible, however the organization pays credit card and website fees.

10. Throughout the year review and revise your plan as needed.

Establishing and maintaining a plan makes charitable giving easy.  Core values are illuminated.  Gifts are invested wisely, so contributions have optimal impact. As years pass – like seasons in New England – giving marks time.  No doubt your time will be well spent – improving the world one contribution at a time.

Life is short.  Celebrate!