Last-Minute Giving in 2013

If you are trying to get charitable donations out the door and have almost no time to spend, here's how to do a decent job.

Maybe something happened this year that gave you a wake-up call, touched your heart, or got you thinking it was time to "pay it forward" or pay it back. You really had intended to spend some time on your charitable-giving strategy, setting some goals and creating a plan. But like everyone else, you've been busy. Thanksgiving came late, the holidays have been hectic, and wham -- it's the end of the year. Well there is still time, and nonprofits will welcome your gifts even at the 11th hour.

If your income increased significantly in 2013, you experienced some kind of windfall this year, or you foresee a fiscal event in the coming year that you need to prepare for, giving higher amounts to charitable causes might help improve your tax picture. Studies show that it may also help you build social ties and be happier while improving your community. Right now, you just need to get it done.

You don't have much time left. For your charitable donations to count as part of the 2013 tax year so you can gain the deductions, those donations must be completed before Jan. 1, 2014. The most expedient way to give is usually a cash donation. You may be able to make those donations directly and quickly through a nonprofit organization's website. If not, call their office; you can probably give a donation over the phone.

You may also be able to give appreciated stocks. By donating these, you avoid the capital-gains tax you would owe if you sold the securities yourself. This also allows you to claim the market value instead of the cost basis of the securities. However, giving securities will usually take a few days to get done, depending on the responsiveness and efficiency of the nonprofit. Some nonprofits will have accounts with a number of brokerage firms, so you can do the transfer directly from your account to theirs; this makes the transfer easier and quicker. You can also give a nonprofit your classic car or beach house property. However, if you want to do that, you should consider waiting until 2014, when you may have more time to complete the gift process.

If your time is so short that you have wedged this task between picking up your dog at the vet and dressing to go out on New Year's Eve, here are some strategies to ensure that you are reasonably effective in making a difference with your contributions:

  • Give to charities that you have given to or volunteered for in the past. In a pinch, building on an established relationship is better than establishing a new one. Review tax returns for the past two or three years to see the nonprofits on your past lists.
  • Give to a charity that your community group (fraternal organization or club) sponsors or that is a favorite of a close family member. If you know they have done the work of researching an organization, you don't have to this time.

With charities that are new to your donations list, at least give them the sniff test:

  • Check the IRS' EO Select Check website to make sure it's a bona fide 501(c) organization. This is an IRS tax-exempt status that requires yearly reporting and a level of oversight by the Federal Government.
  • Do a quick news search using the nonprofit's exact name in a Web search engine. If there is any recent news about the organization, it should pop right up. The nonprofit may have been given a high achievement award or may have had a case of fraud. If you see something that concerns you, dig a little deeper. Some issues have a reasonable explanation or may have been resolved for the better.
  • Search for it on Charity Navigator or Guidestar, both Web-based search engines on nonprofits. These sites have clear and accurate information, but if you are giving a substantial amount or want to initiate a longer-term philanthropic relationship with an organization, these sites will only serve as introductory information sources.

Make a New Year's resolution for 2014 to really think about this and plan for it much earlier in the year. You know how much research and dedication it takes to be skillful with investing. Warren Buffett recently said that philanthropy is the toughest business there is. Because charitable investments do not have the feedback mechanism of profit or loss, it's hard to tell whether they are paying off. So rush to get your donations done in 2013, but follow the Buffett family's example: Next year, spend some quality time on your charitable focus, planning, and fulfillment.

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