Sunday, October 23, 2005

Four Steps to Organized Giving

Tip of the Week, October 16, 2005

Donating to charities is a great way to make a positive impact in the lives of others and to practice generosity. Often, though, a gift to one group results in a flood of solicitations from others, which can mean a mailbox full of appeals and a parade of phone calls asking for money.

The solution isn't to stop giving altogether, but rather to take a planned and organized approach to philanthropy. These four steps will get you started on the right path.

Plan it out
Budgets are a good way of tracking expenses, seeing where your money goes, and planning spending based on what's important to you. A giving budget can have the same benefits and can help you make smarter decisions about where, when, and how much to donate.

Start making your giving plan by taking a look at the donations you've made over the past year. Are there groups you'd definitely give to again? Groups you wouldn't? Are there new or different causes you'd like to support? Did you inadvertently give to the same groups more than once because you received multiple appeals? Are your donations spread throughout the year or clustered in a few certain months? How much would you like to donate altogether per year?

Based on your answers to these questions, list the groups or causes you're most committed to, and then decide when and how much you'll give each year. For example, you might list hunger relief as one of the causes you care about, and might opt to make a gift of $50 in March, when many groups see their holiday donations run out. While your plan should have some specifics, you may also want to set aside a lump sum for on-the-spot giving, which you can use to donate to new groups or causes you learn about throughout the year.

Know who you're giving to
There are thousands of organizations seeking money from donors; the groups you choose to give to should be those doing work you believe in, supporting your values, and, perhaps most importantly, using your donations wisely and responsibly.

Only you can determine which groups are a fit in terms of values and priorities. However, to find out how groups are rated in terms of fiscal responsibility, use an online charity ranking tool, such as Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org). These tools provide information on what groups do with donations, what their administrative and fundraising costs are, and whether the group has ever run into ethical or legal troubles. Knowing that your money will be put to good use helps make philanthropy more meaningful and more fulfilling.

Put the brakes on appeals
Even with a detailed giving plan in place and a solid idea of who you'd like to support, you're sure to receive phone and mail appeals from a variety of groups on a regular basis. Though it's unlikely you'll ever be able to stop these altogether, you can help pare down the number you get.

For starters, aim to dissuade groups from making phone appeals to you. When I receive a phone call from an organization requesting a donation, I tell them I have a giving plan I stick to and add that I prefer not to receive solicitations by phone. Most trustworthy charities have a "Do Not Call" list and will add you to it if you ask. (If you don't mind getting appeals by phone, ask to be put on a group's once-a-year call list.)

Mail solicitations can be somewhat harder to keep at bay. Start by asking the groups you support to limit their mailed appeals and not to share your name and address with other groups. (It's common for non-profits to exchange mailing lists so they can seek out new donors.) When you receive unwanted solicitations, write "Not accepted--return to sender" on the unopened envelopes and put them back in the mail. It costs organizations money to mail appeals, so it's worthwhile for them to remove from their lists people who aren't likely to make a donation.

Keep good records
Finally, be sure to designate a space, such as a file folder or an accordion file, to store the donation receipts you receive, as well as supporting documents like cancelled checks and credit card statements. Keeping this paperwork organized will save you some stress come tax time (if you deduct your donations) and will help you prepare future giving plans.

Use these four steps to make your charitable giving more organized, more meaningful, and less stressful. Both you and the worthwhile groups you support will benefit.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Organizing Medical Information

Tip of the Week, October 9, 2005

Paperwork is often stressful to deal with at the best of times; when you're dealing with a health issue, particularly a serious one, trying to keep track of lots of papers can seem downright painful. Though getting organized can't stop medical-related paperwork from entering your life, it can help you keep it under control. Here are a few simple ways to stay on top of your healthcare papers.

Create a dedicated binder and file
As with other kinds of organization, keeping your medical paperwork in order is much easier if it has a dedicated storage spot; things are much easier to find if you know where to look for them, and much easier to put away when they have a home. Unlike other papers, however, many health-related items need to be portable: notes for doctor's office visits, prescription sheets, and so on. Creating a medical binder and a related file will give you a spot to store various types of papers.

Use a 3-ring binder with tabbed dividers and plastic sheet protectors (which have holes punched along one side and are open on top) to create a portable storage system for your medical papers. You can customize the dividers based on specialists, days of the week, appointment types, or whatever other category makes sense for the health issue you're dealing with. Within each section, stash some blank pages for taking notes at your appointments (or bringing notes to share with your doctors), and use the sheet protectors to transport loose papers such as prescriptions, insurance paperwork, or business cards for your medical professionals.

At home, create a few hanging files with interior folders (that is, standard file folders that go inside the hanging files) that map to the categories you use in your binder. Also, add at least one folder for your insurance information so you have a place for the copious amounts of paperwork you're likely to receive from your insurance provider. Use your file folders to store paperwork you don't need to carry around with you, such as insurance EOBs (Explanations of Benefits), notes from past office visits, and general information on your health.

How long should I keep...?
One of the biggest challenges of dealing with medical paperwork is figuring out how long to keep it. There isn't a single set of guidelines that applies to everyone; what to keep and how long to keep it depends on several factors, including what medical issues you're dealing with, what sort of insurance you have, and whether you claim medical expenses as tax deductions.

To make it easier to keep your medical files up-to-date and under control, establish some guidelines for how long you'll hold on to papers. You might start by asking your insurance company how easy (or difficult) it would be to get another copy of an EOB if you needed it in the future. Your doctors might be able to provide some input on how long to keep notes on office visits, prescription information they give you, or research articles on your condition. Finally, your tax preparer can offer some guidelines on when it's safe to toss any medical or insurance records you may have been keeping for tax purposes. The bottom line is to create some guidelines that work for you and then stick to them by disposing of medical paperwork that has outlived its usefulness.

Processing new paperwork
As with any kind of filing, dealing with medical paperwork is an ongoing job: there will always be new prescriptions, articles, notes, and EOBs to deal with. While filing and organizing papers can be doubly hard when you're dealing with a health issue, taking small, regular steps to keep on top of it is generally much easier than trying to play catch-up when it overwhelms you.

Try to set aside a few minutes once or twice a week to sort through whatever medical paperwork has come in, and to put it where it belongs, whether in your binder or in a file. If a caregiver is responsible for dealing with paperwork, make sure he or she knows the system you've set up and can be counted on to put things in the right place. When dealing with particularly difficult doctor's office visits or serious medical procedures, ask a friend, family member, or other caregiver to accompany you and to take responsibility for any related paperwork.

Trying to wade through piles of healthcare-related papers may always be something of a chore; however, using the tips above to organize your medical files can make this task less stressful. With the papers you need stored together, easy to find, and up-to-date, you'll be more in control and better prepared to focus on your healthcare needs.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Organized Errands

Tip of the Week, October 2, 2005

You set out for the post office, only to realize once you get there that you left on your desk an important bill you needed to mail. Or you arrive at the grocery store without your shopping list, try to remember everything you wanted to buy, and return home to discover that you've forgotten several things.

Sound familiar? Like many tasks, errands are easier, more efficient, and less stressful with a bit of advance planning and some simple organization. Here are some easy ways to ensure that your next trip to the post office (or the grocery store, or the dry cleaner) gets the job done right.

Keep a running list
Unless you're very close to the places you normally go to run your errands, it's probably somewhat inefficient to make a separate trip for each task. Bundling several errands and doing them all in one fell swoop can help save time and frustration.

To keep tabs on the errands you need to take care of, create a list with the tasks broken down in a logical way, whether by type of errand (shopping, clothing care, etc.), by location (all errands that need to be done in one certain part of town, for example), or by length of time required (tasks that will take less than five minutes, between five and ten, and so on). Post this list in an accessible place, such as near the door, in the kitchen, or near your desk. When one section of the list fills up, schedule time to take care of those errands.

Create an errand supplies spot
In addition to keeping a list of the tasks you need to do, it's helpful to have a designated spot for the supplies each of those tasks requires. Your errand supplies spot might hold things like your grocery list, coupons, and bags for food shopping; deposit slips, checks, and a calculator for bank runs; and items to mail for trips to the post office.

The form your supplies spot will take depends, of course, on how many supplies you have, but one good option is a wall-mounted magazine rack or literature holder (often sold in office supply stores). These holders are divided into pockets, each of which could hold the things you need for each errand. Be sure to locate your supplies spot in a place that's easy to get to when you're heading out the door, and make it a habit to check it before leaving to do your errands.

Do an errands audit
One of the best ways to make errands more bearable is to get rid of the ones that aren't productive, could be assigned to someone else, or could be done in a simpler form (such as online or by phone). To do an errands audit, make a list of all the tasks you do, both planned and unplanned, over a two-week period. Also jot down some figures for how long each errand takes.

Once you're done with your list, take a good look at it. Are there duplicate errands (such as multiple trips to the grocery store) that could be eliminated by better planning? What errands could be handed off to a child, spouse, or partner to open up time in your schedule? (Things like dropping off mail, picking up dry cleaning, and buying grocery staples are good candidates for delegation to others.) Are there errands you could take care of online (such as bill paying) or over the phone? See how many errands you can remove from your list, and watch how the time saved adds up.

Do some smart multi-tasking
Though "multi-tasking" can sometimes be a code phrase for "trying to do too many things at the same time," it can be a useful practice if used sparingly and smartly. For example, if you know you're likely to face a long line at the post office, bring a magazine you've been intending to read, a birthday card you need to write, or a stack of mail to sort through. The next time you visit your grocery store, check to see whether it has a branch of your bank, a mailing facility, or a charity donation drop-off point; more and more stores are combining multiple conveniences under one roof, and visiting all of them while you do your shopping can help save you time and unneeded trips.

Running errands may never be anyone's favorite job, but with some simple advance planning and a bit of organizing, it can become a much less arduous task. And with the time you save, you can do something you truly enjoy, far from the post office, dry cleaner, or grocery store.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Put Your Unwanted Stuff to Good Use

Tip of the Week, September 25, 2005

Among the most common objections my clients (and, yes, I myself!) have when weeding out items that are still in usable condition are "I might need it someday," "I paid good money for it," and "It's too valuable just to give to Goodwill." Indeed, it can be hard to let go of things that are high quality and in good shape if it seems like they'll just get piled up in a warehouse somewhere or, worse yet, tossed in the trash.

But fear not: there are plenty of resources available to help you ensure that your giveaways will have a useful life after they leave you. Here are a few of my favorites.

Send your unneeded professional clothing back to work
Getting rid of a drawer full of shorts, t-shirts, and turtlenecks is one thing; letting go of a closet full of suits and professional clothes is something else entirely. Rather than dumping your unused work clothes in with the rest of your castoffs, consider donating them to a program that provides outfits to low-income men, women, and young adults who are seeking employment.

These programs--including Dress for Success, A Miner Miracle, and Wardrobe for Opportunity--accept gently worn professional clothing, which goes directly to the clients the programs serve. The clients benefit from high-quality, office appropriate work clothes, and you get the satisfaction of knowing you've given your old suits a new life.

Let your books give someone else the gift of reading
Airport paperbacks and beat-up children's books are easy to pass along to charity without a second thought, but what about all of those hardcover novels you won't read again or the college textbooks lurking in the basement? Luckily, there are dozens and dozens of organizations throughout the world looking for books of all kinds.

Looking for a good way to offload that gigantic set of Econ textbooks you've been carrying around since you left college? Check out Bridge to Asia, a group that seeks donations of all sorts of scholarly books for university libraries in China. Closer to home, The National Book Foundation maintains a list of organizations it has received donation requests from. With so many worthy groups--from elementary schools to tribal colleges to retirement communities--looking for book donations, it's easy and painless to get your volumes into the hands of people who will read, learn from, and enjoy them.

A creative reuse for your seemingly useless stuff
Happen to have a bundle of empty DVD cases, a few yards of fabric, a smattering of lace, a few bags of feathers, some crochet needles, or a bundle of bones you'd like to offload? If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, chances are either the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or the Scroungers' Center for Reusable Art Parts (a.k.a. SCRAP) would be happy to take them off your hands. These groups collect a mind-bending variety of materials, which they then donate to schools and afterschool programs.

Creative reuse programs are also flourishing elsewhere in the country, sometimes in affiliation with children's museums or after-school programs, sometimes on their own. To find a similar organization near you, try Googling "creative reuse" or contacting your local school board.

What to do with (almost) everything else
If you've ever looked at something you no longer wanted or needed and thought, "I'm sure someone could use this," you were probably right. And now there are two great Web sites devoted to helping you find the other half of your equation.

Both Citylinks and Excess Access let you find non-profits in your area that are looking for the very stuff you're giving away. City Links shows you wishlists for groups near you, while Excess Access lets you post the items you're giving away (for non-profits to browse). Both sites offer an easy way to make sure your stuff is going to an organization that needs it and will put it to good use.

The next time you're sorting through your closets, attic, or cupboards, focus less on "But I might need it someday" and more on "I know someone who needs it right now." Knowing that your unwanted stuff will find new and useful lives elsewhere, with direct benefits to the recipients, can help make the process of letting go easier and more rewarding.