Worth is excited to partner with Vanguard Charitable this giving season. This article has been written, reported and edited by Worth’s editorial team with no outside influence—it is brought to you in partnership with Vanguard Charitable. 

Along with everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed charitable giving—maybe not fundamentally, but just enough to be noticeable.

In one sense, the pandemic was a boon for charitable causes. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests drew vital attention to social and racial justice.

At the same time, the pandemic disrupted charitable organizations’ rhythm of galas and events—the lifeblood for many smaller nonprofits without the brand recognition and staying power of established national names like the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. Though there was a large increase in online donations, the shift to virtual events didn’t yield the same windfall. And though charitable giving increased, fewer donors appear to be giving just as the generational torch is being passed. A recent survey revealed 74 percent of millennials consider themselves philanthropists.

Thus, there is justification enough for a reappraisal for charitable donors, including first-time and relatively new givers, as well as established philanthropists with longstanding annual pledges.

And donors committed to solving other major struggles are lacking: Less than 2 percent of all philanthropic giving worldwide goes to organizations addressing issues around climate change, which the World Health Organization identifies as the top challenge for humanity, according to the ClimateWorks Foundation. (In the United States, that figure drops to less than 1 percent.)


More broadly, the pandemic simply put pre-existing societal conditions into starker relief. As Jeannie Sager, director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, recently observed, COVID-19 created disproportionate and “unprecedented stress for” women, in particular BIPOC women. With no shortage of need and numerous choices for donors to sift through, how can donors ensure their gifts have maximum impact?

Run the Numbers…Starting With Your Own

The good news is that, so far, the pandemic hasn’t shifted structural fundamentals. The tax code is still the tax code, and donor-advised funds (or DAFs) tied to investments like stocks are still a simple way for donors to convert assets into charitable gifts (and subsequent tax write-offs).

With that stability, and with the market rewarding many individuals with a windfall—particularly for those with holdings in renewable energy, pharmaceuticals and cryptocurrency—now may be the time to sit down with your financial advisor and take stock, according to Afi Tengue, vice president of philanthropy and impact at Giving Compass.


“It’s really important to know, ‘What’s your number?’” she says. That includes reassessing what you feel comfortable giving—as well as what the organizations need.

“Gifts tend to be arbitrary, rather than tied to the needs of the organization,” she says. Schedule a meeting with your financial advisor and the executive director of the charity to which you’ve been faithfully donating. A few “intentional conversations” like these will give you the opportunity to connect more closely with the organization you’re supporting.

This may also prompt you to reassess the recurring contributions from your DAF—and lead you to ponder what assets you may have that can easily be liquidated into another contribution.

Once the purse is open, consider what strings you may wish to loosen. If you have recurring grants, maybe they can be increased, or maybe attached strings can be removed—two points the Women’s Philanthropy Institute encourage donors to consider.

During the pandemic, “we noticed that a number of donors started to realize the benefits of giving unrestricted funds” to organizations, rather than contributions earmarked for a particular purpose within that organization’s purview, observed Jenna Mulhall-Brereton, chief philanthropic services officer at the National Philanthropic Trust. And this was a good thing.

“It’s the notion that nonprofit organizations should be able to program the funds as they thought was best,” she says. “People started to see the value in that trend. Unrestricted giving is a positive trend—it shows a lot of trust and shows donors value the expertise of the organizations they’re giving to.”

How to Choose Your Fighter

Most giving is reactive rather than proactive. Nothing wrong with that. Crises beget fundraising campaigns that beget philanthropy.

However, sometimes causes could do a better job sharing the mic. Smaller nonprofits, including those run by BIPOC executive directors most connected to the communities they serve—and thus best poised to make the most impactful per-donor dollar—“continue to receive exceptionally less than large nonprofits,” Tengue observed.

And organizations that serve rural areas in middle America also tend to receive less attention and less money than causes in urban areas.

So where to give?

No wonder that big-name organizations catch so much giving that could potentially have greater impact if more carefully distributed.

“It’s really common to have analysis paralysis at the beginning,” Mulhall-Brereton said. “The options are vast, and it’s hard to cut through the noise.”

With this in mind, donors can assess their past, pending and future contributions in a familiar way: using the same methods used to analyze a potential investment.

First, discuss charity with yourself—and with your peers, including your friends, as well as adult children. What challenges have impacted yourself, your family and your community? Chances are you share similar concerns and values—there’s a reason why they’re in your peer network, after all. See where they’re devoting their dollars—and benefit from their research and experience.

Once you’ve identified a potential recipient, perform your own due diligence. Read the organization’s mission statement and study their goals. Determine if their approach is data driven. (If a charity gives out meals, ask, “What kind of meals?”) Was the help long- or short-term in focus?

Schedule that meeting with the executive director and your financial advisor—or volunteer to see for yourself. Look at the executive director and the board. See if they have a past track record of success—and, perhaps most important of all, see how connected they are to the cause they support.

“If the organization is about disabilities, the leadership should be people who understand and represent disabled communities,” says Tengue. “You cannot solve problems you have not lived…it’s going to require the minds of the people who have experienced that situation.”

“We believe the biggest unrealized opportunity for impact in philanthropy lies with these ‘proximate leaders,’ who often have the deepest knowledge about their communities and the most innovative ideas for transforming inequitable systems,” agrees Sam Hiersteiner, a managing partner at venture philanthropy organization New Profit.

Learn by Giving—And Consider Your Portfolio

Mulhall-Brereton also encourages donors to be bold and “learn by giving,” choosing to start with small contributions rather than get lost in poring over annual reports. “One of the most important things I can say is, don’t wait until you have every detail,” she says. “Just pick one or two organizations. You can start with relatively small grants…and just use that platform to keep learning.”

This is also an effective way to assess new nonprofits or organizations that may lack an established track record going back decades—but may still be best poised to create the most benefit. In this way, it’s valuable to think about charitable giving in the same way you’d think about an investment portfolio. This is how a neophyte becomes a savvy philanthropist.

“Some [charities] may be slam dunks, and some may be riskier bets that pay off in an amazing way,” Mulhall-Brereton adds. “Not everything will be wildly successful, but some will—and you’ll have an opportunity to learn a lot.”

Think Outside the IRS Form Box

Donors are also encouraged to think beyond the usual nonprofits. Instead of writing a check to buy mosquito nets in an area stricken by malaria, for example, you could fund an academic study that’s researching malaria drug treatments or vaccines.

In addition, consider supporting political organizations, including 501(c)4 organizations, as well as political candidates working in areas of concern to the donor.

While this may not deliver the same tax benefits, supporting efforts that actively change policy and effect “long-term change removes the need to do last-minute band-aid solutions,” Tengue says. “The reality is we need funders to think in the long term,” and consider “sustained giving” for long-term “political and legal battles that will continue” over the coming years.

Where to Give

Voting Rights

Fair Fight
Advocates for free and fair elections in the U.S., including awareness and advocacy around irregularities, disenfranchisement and gerrymandering.

New Georgia Project
Organization with singular focus on enfranchisement and registration in a state where the evisceration of the federal Voting Rights Act has had profound impact.

Racial Justice

Unidos US
The country’s largest organization dedicated to issues affecting Latinos, including immigration policy, as well as workplace rights.

Chinese for Affirmative Action
Decades-old San Francisco-based organization focused on Chinese American issues, including health and housing, as well as civil rights and public safety.

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights
Nonpartisan organization focused on utilizing the power of the private bar to ensure equal rights through rule of law.

Worker Rights and Entrepreneurial Opportunities

The Workers Lab
Addresses shifts in nature of workplace dynamics.

Camelback Ventures
Identifies local innovators and leaders with promising ideas to whom entrepreneurial capital is afforded.

Criminal Justice Reform

The Weldon Project
Founded by music producer Weldon Angelos who served time on a nonviolent cannabis charge, this organization funds social change and financial aid for individuals who still have criminal records after marijuana legalization.

Center for Policing Equity
Nonprofit think tank that produces reports to law enforcement to identify causes behind policing disparities.

Environmental Justice

Outdoor Afro
Oakland, California-based community nonprofit that encourages Black engagement with the outdoors (and funded the first-ever Black expedition that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro).

Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Based in areas directly impacted by the petrochemical industry, addresses environmental racism present in disadvantaged areas in the South.