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How to Give Back to the Community & Be Charitable on a Budget

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In early 2020, America’s financial condition took a sudden dive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the COVID-19 pandemic drove the civilian unemployment rate from 3.5% in February to 14.7% in April as states shut down businesses and issued stay-at-home orders to contain the virus’s spread. With little emergency savings to fall back on, increasing numbers of Americans had trouble paying their bills.

As a result, millions of people across the country have turned to charities for emergency assistance. Feeding America says more people than ever rely on food banks, many of them for the first time. In August 2020, a survey of 1,000-plus Americans by Unity Band found that more than half were facing serious financial hardship due to COVID-19, and 1 out of 5 was at risk of bankruptcy.

The good news is many excellent charities are providing COVID-19 relief. However, when you’re on a tight budget, it’s hard to find extra money to donate to them. The current crisis makes it even harder, as many Americans are currently slashing their budgets to the bone just to keep their own heads above water. In an August 2020 survey by Newsweek and LendingTree, 35% of respondents said they had severely cut their spending in response to the pandemic.

Fortunately, there are ways to give, even when money is tight. You can start by looking for extra cash in your budget to donate and ways to raise money from other people. And if that isn’t enough, you can turn to other forms of giving that don’t require any money at all.

Finding Money to Donate

Being on a tight budget isn’t the same thing as having zero cash to spare. If you look carefully, you might discover unexpected sources of money you can give to charity, much the same way you can find extra money for paying down debt.

For instance, you may be able to:

  • Donate Coins. If you have a big jar of coins sitting around the house, you can turn it into a charitable donation through Coinstar’s Coins That Count program. At some Coinstar kiosks, you can donate the coins you deposit to one of several charitable partners, including the American Red Cross, Feeding America, and UNICEF USA.
  • Round Up Purchases. Another way to donate spare change is to use a charity app like Donate Your Change, GiveTide, or RoundUp App. Every time you make a purchase using a card or account linked to the app, it automatically rounds up the to the nearest dollar. The extra money goes to a charity of your choice.
  • Donate Your Tax Refund. Technically, a tax refund isn’t free money — it’s your own money you’re getting back after overpaying your taxes. But since it’s money you didn’t have before, you can give it away and not miss it. Plus, donating your refund to charity lets you claim it as a deduction on next year’s taxes.
  • Give Away Credit Card Rewards. If you have a rewards credit card, you can use your earnings to help a cause you support. According to USA Today, many programs let you donate your cash back, miles, or points to charity directly from their websites. Just go to the rewards section and look for a link to a charity. If your card doesn’t offer this option, you can turn in your points for cash and donate that instead.
  • Use Employer Matching. Some employers offer gift matching programs. When their employees donate money to an approved charity, they match some or all of the amount. If you work for a business, ask the human resources department if it has such a program. If it does, every gift you make to charity, however small, can have up to double the impact.

Raising Money From Others

Even if you have no money at all to spare, you can still help direct money toward a charitable cause you support. Instead of giving your own money, help the charity raise money from others. There are several ways to do that — some very simple, others requiring more time commitment.

Give by Shopping

Some businesses show their commitment to social responsibility by donating part of their earnings to charity. For instance, when you make a purchase through AmazonSmile, 0.5% of the price (not counting shipping) goes to a charitable organization you choose. Similarly, when you bring reusable bags to Whole Foods, you can choose to donate your $0.05 or $0.10 per bag credit (depending on the location) to a nonprofit. Check with other stores where you regularly shop to see if they offer similar programs.

Another way to give by shopping is to patronize charity thrift shops. These stores sell donated goods such as clothing and furniture to raise money for their programs. By shopping there, you can save money on things you need and support a worthy cause simultaneously.

Use a Charitable Credit Card

While you can donate rewards from any credit card to charity, some cards are specifically designed for this purpose. Every time you make a purchase with one, a small percentage of the price automatically goes to a charitable cause with no additional effort on your part. Examples include Bank of America’s pink ribbon card and Fifth Third Bank’s SU2C credit card.

Use Social Media

Your social media accounts can be a useful tool to promote causes you care about. Follow your favorite charities and link to or retweet their posts so more people will see them.

Request Donations as Gifts

When friends or family members ask you what you’d like as a birthday gift or holiday gift, ask for donations to your favorite charities. Some charities, such as Save the Children and Charity: Water, have tools on their websites to make it easy to set up a fundraising campaign for your birthday. There’s also a birthday fundraiser tool on Facebook.

Join a Sponsored Walk

Many charities raise funds through sponsored walk or run events, which you can find on sites like Active and Runner’s World. After signing up for one of these, you ask friends and relatives to sponsor you by pledging a certain amount to the charity for each mile you walk or run.

You can also create your own charity walk, run, or bike event with the Charity Miles app. Download the app, select a charity, and track your miles, and the app’s sponsors will donate money to your chosen charity.

Start a Fundraiser

It’s relatively straightforward to start a fundraiser for your favorite cause through a crowdfunding site like GoFundMe. The site walks you through all the steps to set up a site for your fundraiser, publicize it through social media, and receive donations. You can raise funds for an established charity, a local cause you want to support, or even an individual who needs help.

Organize a Drive

If you’re willing to put in more time and effort, organize a fundraising drive for your favorite charity. For instance, you could set up jars around town for people to donate spare change, which you can donate through Coinstar. You could also organize a bake sale or car wash, hold a community yard sale and donate the proceeds to charity, or set up a drive to collect donations of goods, such as food or winter coats.

Donation Box Of Food Pantry Items Cooking Charity


Giving Physical Objects

Many charities can accept donations of items other than cash. They can distribute necessities like food and used clothes to people in need or sell donated goods to raise money for their programs. By passing on your unwanted effects to these organizations or making handmade essentials to donate, you can support a worthy cause without spending money.

What to Give

If you look around your home, you’re likely to discover various unused possessions you can donate to charity. Goods charities can accept include:

  • Clothes. Many charities accept donations of gently used clothing and footwear. Some, such as Dress for Success, pass these garments directly to people who need them. Others sell them in resale shops as a source of funds.
  • Furniture. Many charities accept donations of furniture and home accessories for resale. Some of them can even send a truck to your house to pick up large pieces, so you don’t need to drop them off.
  • Electronics. Your old computers and electronics can help out soldiers, schoolchildren, and people in other countries. Donating them also prevents them from turning into hazardous e-waste that’s hard to recycle.
  • Toys. Although holiday toy drives usually request new toys for donation, some charities can make use of old toys your kids have outgrown. You can find these charities through DonationTown.
  • Books. Do you have too many books cluttering your shelves? You can donate them to benefit soldiers, children, local libraries, prisoners, and people overseas.
  • Food. Food drives, food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens across the country can accept donations of food. If you’re into extreme couponing, you can use your skills to pick up food for pennies — or even completely free — and donate them.
  • Personal Care Products. Women’s shelters and organizations that help the homeless can use unopened personal hygiene products such as shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, and menstrual care products. Some organizations have a particular need for travel-size products, such as free samples or those you picked up when staying at a hotel.
  • Gift Cards. One of the most useful items to give to charity is unused gift cards. When you donate these, you may be able to deduct their value on your taxes just as if you had given cash. Websites like Donate Your Card and GiftCards4Change can help you find charities to donate your cards to.
  • Handmade Essentials. Some charities accept donations of handmade necessities like quilts and blankets. Also, some charities involved in COVID-19 relief accept homemade face masks and other personal protective equipment.
  • Vehicles. You can even donate your old car to charity. Of course, if you’re on a tight budget, you’d probably prefer to sell any vehicle that’s still in decent shape. However, some charities accept even old clunkers with practically no value, and they tow the car away for free.

Where to Give

There’s a wide variety of charities that can accept donations of goods. If you have used or handmade items to give away, try these organizations:

  • Goodwill. This nonprofit’s mission is to help people find work through training and job placement. It collects things like new and gently used clothing and furniture to sell in its resale stores to fund its programs. It also accepts electronics for refurbishing. Visit the Goodwill website to find stores, collection bins, and donation centers near you.
  • Salvation Army. The Salvation Army aids the needy through programs such as disaster relief, job training, and food pantries. It accepts donations of clothing, furniture, appliances, and household goods for resale. It also accepts vehicles. Visit the site to find a drop-off location or schedule a free pickup.
  • Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). The VVA collects clothing, accessories, toys, and household goods and resells them to raise funds for veterans. Visit Pickup Please to have donations picked up from your home.
  • Habitat for Humanity. This organization builds homes for low-income people, who contribute their own labor toward the project. To fund its operations, it sells donated furniture, appliances, building materials, and home goods through its Habitat ReStores. You can drop donations off at a store near you or arrange a free pickup for large pieces.
  • Project Linus. This organization donates homemade blankets to children in hospitals, shelters, and social services. The site welcomes donations of all kinds of blankets, including quilts, tied comforters, fleece blankets, and knitted or crocheted afghans. It even provides free patterns for blankets you can make to donate. Visit its website to find a drop-off site near you.
  • Libraries. Many local libraries accept donations of gently used books, CDs, and DVDs. They either go onto the library’s shelves or the library sells them to raise funds for library events and activities.
  • Food Banks. Local food banks and food pantries distribute food to people in need. However, each one has different rules about what types of food donations it can accept. You can find your local food bank through Feeding America and then contact it to learn how to donate.
  • Health Care Providers. Health care providers like hospitals and urgent care centers accept donations of both single-use and handmade masks for their patients and staff. To find organizations that need help, visit Deaconess, and search for your location.

If you have other goods to give away that none of these organizations accepts, don’t give up. This list barely scratches the surface of all the possible places there are to donate. Just do an Internet search on the term “donate” with your item and location, and chances are you’ll find at least one organization that can accept it.


How to Give

Even when you know a charity takes certain things, it may not accept all of them at all its donation sites. Before dropping off your donation, contact the organization to ask what it can take and where.

Also, check out the organization’s rules about the condition of donated goods. In general, charities only take items in good condition. That means:

  • Clothing and upholstered furniture are free of rips, stains, and odors
  • Electronics and appliances work (test them to make sure)
  • Children’s toys and games have all their parts
  • Books have all their pages and are in readable condition
  • Food hasn’t passed its best-by date

When dropping off your donation, request an itemized receipt listing each gift with its estimated value. Get a receipt for any cash or gift cards you donate as well. This receipt serves as your proof if you claim a tax deduction for your donation.


Giving Your Time

It takes more than money to keep a charitable organization running. Many of them also rely on volunteers to pitch in and help with daily operations. So even if you don’t have any money to support your favorite cause, you can still make a difference by giving your time.

Volunteering doesn’t have the same tax benefits as donating money. For instance, if you’re typically paid $35 per hour for your work as a Web developer, you can’t claim a $350 deduction for the 10 hours you “donated” to work on a charity’s website. However, if you have to drive to the place where you do your volunteer work, you can claim a tax deduction for the mileage.

How to Volunteer

If you have any professional skills, you can do a charity a big favor by providing free services. Many nonprofits can’t afford to keep professionals like a lawyer, accountant, or graphic designer on their staff. By donating your services to draw up a contract, review a tax form, or create a poster, you can save the organization a significant amount of money.

However, even if you have no special skills the organization needs, you can still do lots of jobs to help out. For instance, you can:

  • Help serve meals at a soup kitchen
  • Shelve books at the public library
  • Clean up a local park or a polluted stream
  • Chaperone a field trip for a local school
  • Visit residents at a senior center
  • Foster a puppy for an animal shelter or a service dog training program
  • Make audio recordings of books for the blind and visually impaired

Where to Volunteer

All kinds of organizations rely on volunteers, including food pantries, shelters, medical facilities, schools, senior centers, libraries, museums, animal rescues, and religious institutions. The VolunteerMatch website can help you find volunteer opportunities in your area and figure out which one is the best fit for you. You can select the causes and issues that interest you most and enter your particular skills to find out where you can be the most useful.

However, working for an organization isn’t the only way to make a difference in your community. You can do a lot of good just by helping out your friends and neighbors on an informal basis. For instance, if you have an elderly neighbor who has trouble getting around, you could volunteer to do their grocery shopping or help with simple household chores. You can also take part in local projects such as a community cleanup day.


Giving Medical Donations

Even if you’re short on both money and time, you still have something of value to give. Hospitals and other medical organizations can always use donations of blood and other vital body fluids. By making a medical donation of this kind, you’re literally giving a piece of yourself that could save someone else’s life.

Donating Blood

The most common type of medical donation is blood donation. According to the American Red Cross, someone in the United States needs blood every two seconds. Blood and blood components, such as platelets, can’t be manufactured. They can only come from donors. A single unit of blood (about a pint) can potentially save up to three lives.

Unfortunately, blood is always in short supply. According to the Red Cross, less than 38% of the population is eligible to give blood, and only 3% of those who are eligible actually do it. Moreover, red blood cells only stay good for 42 days, and platelets are good for only five days. So, if you’re an eligible donor, your blood is an incredibly valuable gift.

To give blood in most states, you must be at least 16 years old. You must also weigh at least 110 pounds and be in good health. The Red Cross also screens out some donors based on medical conditions, medications they’re taking, behaviors or family history that could put them at risk for dangerous diseases, or travel to places where such diseases are common.

You can give whole blood up to once every eight weeks. The donation process itself takes about 10 minutes. However, you also need to fill out paperwork beforehand and rest for a while afterward, so the entire appointment can take around 45 minutes. At most donation sites, you even get free juice and cookies to replenish your energy after your donation.

Whole blood is the most flexible type of donation since they can give it to patients in its original form or separate into components if necessary. However, you can donate more frequently using a process called apheresis. During apheresis, they hook you up to a machine that draws out a small amount of your blood, removes the component they need (platelets, red cells, or plasma), and returns the rest to your body. This process takes about two hours.

You can sign up to donate whole blood, plasma, platelets, or red blood cells through the Red Cross website. Enter your zip code, and the site shows you the locations of upcoming blood drives in your area. You may also be able to donate through a local hospital or other medical facility. Search for “blood donation near me” to find locations.

After you give blood, many blood banks will add your contact information to their mailing list. You will receive a call or email whenever there’s an emergency need for blood, especially for your particular blood type. Some blood banks notify you automatically as soon as you’re eligible to donate again. That makes it easy to turn your lifesaving donations into a regular habit.

Donating Hair

Your next haircut could improve the life of a child. The Florida-based charity Locks of Love uses donated hair to make custom wigs for children who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment or medical conditions like alopecia. The organization collects donated ponytails, which must be at least 10 inches long from end to end. It takes at least 10 donated ponytails to make one hairpiece.

To donate your hair to Locks of Love, download the organization’s hair donation form and send it in with your ponytail. You can have your hair cut at any salon that participates in the Locks of Love program. Many national chains are part of the program. You can identify participating salons by the Locks of Love decal in the window or by searching for “Locks of Love salon” with your location.

Donating Breast Milk

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding babies whenever possible. But Naomi Bar-Yam, president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), tells Parents magazine that isn’t always an option for premature and critically ill babies. Sometimes, the mother’s milk isn’t available, and sometimes, there isn’t enough of it right away to sustain the baby. Since these fragile infants can’t safely consume formula, they rely on milk donated by other nursing mothers to keep them alive.

That’s where milk banks come in. These nonprofit organizations collect breast milk from mothers who produce more than their babies need. The HMBANA is a network of 30 milk banks across the U.S. and Canada working to provide breast milk to at-risk infants. All its member banks must meet strict safety standards, pasteurizing donated milk to kill bacteria and storing it safely to avoid contamination.

If you’re a nursing parent with breast milk to spare, you can help save babies by joining an HMBANA member bank. Visit the HMBANA site to find the one nearest you. The bank doesn’t have to be in your home state, as many of them operate on a regional or national basis.

Once you sign up to donate, you must go through a screening process to make sure you meet the bank’s criteria. If you’re approved, you’ll receive instructions for collecting your milk and where to send it. In some cases, you drop off your donation at a collection site. In others, you send it to the bank via overnight shipping. The bank covers all your costs for shipping and the necessary screening tests.

Donating Bone Marrow & Stem Cells

Patients receive donations of whole blood or red blood cells to replace an immediate shortage. However, some patients have a long-term shortage because their bodies are not producing enough red blood cells. That can happen as a result of disease or because of cancer treatments that damage the bone marrow.

The treatment for this condition is a bone marrow transplant. Doctors collect blood-forming cells from a healthy person and inject them into the patient’s body. To harvest these cells, they must collect either bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) from the donor.

However, matching up donors and recipients is much more complicated for this type of donation than for blood donation. For the recipient’s body to accept the donor’s cells, they must have matching human leukocyte antigen (HLA) types. Each person has many different HLA markers. You’re most likely to be a close match with someone who’s a close blood relative, but about 70% of patients don’t have a good match in their family.

You can help these patients by registering with the Be the Match Registry. When you join, you supply a sample of your DNA through a cheek swab, which goes on file in the registry. If your DNA turns up as a potential match for someone who needs a donation, the registry contacts you and asks you to provide a blood sample for further testing. You must also go through screening for health conditions that could make it unsafe for you to donate.

If you are a match, you can donate either bone marrow or PBSC to the recipient. Both are complicated processes, requiring a time commitment of 20 to 30 hours for appointments over four to six weeks.

If you give bone marrow, doctors will draw it from your body with a needle while you’re under anesthesia. If you give PBSC, you’ll spend five days receiving injections of a drug to increase the number of stem cells in your blood. They then harvest those cells through apheresis in either one long session (about eight hours) or two shorter ones (four to six hours). Both processes can cause some uncomfortable side effects, but they pose little risk to your health.

Becoming a bone marrow donor is a big commitment. However, it’s also a chance to save someone’s life in a way no one else can. To register, you must be between 18 and 60 years old. Donors under age 45 are preferred, so if you are 45 or older, you must pay $100 for processing.

Donating Umbilical Cord Blood

Giving bone marrow or PBSC isn’t the only way to help patients who need bone marrow transplants. If you’re expecting a baby, you can register to donate blood from your baby’s umbilical cord. It contains the same kind of blood-forming cells found in bone marrow.

One advantage of using cord blood is that the donor doesn’t have to be as close a genetic match to the recipient. Also, banks can store cord blood longer than bone marrow or PBSC. When you donate cord blood, it’s listed on the Be the Match Registry and stored in a public cord blood bank, ready to be used if needed.

Donating cord blood is much simpler than donating blood marrow or PBSC. Just follow these steps:

  1. Sometime after your 28th week of pregnancy, talk to your doctor about becoming a donor.
  2. Check the criteria on the Be the Match site to see if you are eligible to donate.
  3. Check the list of participating hospitals to see if the hospital where you’re having your baby is associated with a cord blood bank. If it is not, you cannot donate.
  4. When you arrive at the hospital for delivery, make sure the doctor and delivery team know you’re donating.
  5. After you have the baby, the staff will save the umbilical cord and placenta. They will also take a sample of your blood to test for any infectious diseases.
  6. Shortly after the birth, they’ll deposit your cord blood in the bank. Save your informed consent form in case you need to contact the bank later.

Donating Organs & Tissue

There’s one final way you can donate to save a life — one that doesn’t cost you anything or even inconvenience you in any way. You can sign up now to become an organ donor after your death.

According to Donate Life America, there are over 110,000 people in the country waiting for organ transplants. Every day, 22 people die because they did not receive the organ they needed in time. In theory, the organs from just one donor could help more than 75 people. Yet even though 95% of Americans say they are in favor of organ donation, only 58% are currently registered to donate.

Registering as an organ donor is free and easy. You can sign up in person through your state’s motor vehicle department or online through the National Donate Life Registry. You can also register in both places to make sure your wishes are known.


Final Word

Giving to charity is an incredibly rewarding experience for most people. Happiness economists note that using money to help others provides a significant boost to your well-being. Giving just once provides an immediate jolt of pleasure, and regularly doing it can make you more satisfied with your life and even improve your mental and physical health.

There’s no reason to be shut out of these benefits just because you have little or no money to spare. Instead, you can help others with your spare change, spare time, unwanted stuff, or blood. And because these types of giving take extra time and thought, they can feel more satisfying than putting a check in the mail.

Do you have any other tips for giving back while staying within a budget?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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