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Headlines about billionaires and their multimillion-dollar donations make us think philanthropy is mostly something wealthy people do. In fact, the bulk of America’s donated dollars come from regular people. You don’t necessarily need a huge bank account to enact change; it’s less about how much you give than where and why you give it.

Posted by Francis Zierer on March 22, 2021

Philanthropy seems to exist in the public imagination as something done by the ultra-wealthy. News outlets publish headlines like “Warren Buffet giving away another $2.9 billion, bringing total donations since 2006 to $37 billion.” MacKenzie Scott, since her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has been in the news frequently for donating massive sums; one article from December of last year mentions her donating at least $4 billion in the preceding four months. The richest among us regularly donate sums far beyond what most people would earn in a dozen lifetimes.


Newsflash: you don’t have to be rich to be an effective philanthropist. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the term’s original meaning: a love of humankind. We all have the capacity to help others through our actions, whether that’s by donating funds, volunteering our time, or otherwise lending a hand. Small acts of philanthropy help keep the world turning, and can be even more effective than massive donations. It comes down to intent, strategy, and simply doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.


If you wish to practice philanthropy, if you wish to help others, you’re already well on your way to making a difference. Certain thinkers, including former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, actually argue against the effectiveness of big, flashy philanthropists like those mentioned above. He calls the practice flawed and “unaccountable, non-transparent, donor-directed, perpetual, and tax-subsidized.” In other words, it doesn’t always solve the problems it ostensibly means to and often benefits the donor himself far more than anyone else. There is no shortage of articles detailing how a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg towards the Newark, NJ schooling system failed to enact meaningful change.


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The point is this: you, the person reading this article, have the ability to change the world. Zuckerburg’s failure illustrates that it’s not so much about the money; it’s about intention, hard work, and follow-through. Ultimately, if you’re truly committed to changing something, other people with similar goals and desires will see your passion for what it is and join with you to build a better world. Let’s look at how small donors make a big impact.


In 2019, Americans gave (in general, to foundations and charities) some $449.64 billion. Even when the mega-rich give by the billion, they aren’t achieving that number alone. Small and medium donors like you make up the bulk of that massive number. In 2014, Americans gave $358 billion to charity (notice the massive increase from then to 2019—people are giving more and more). Of that sum, 14% came from foundations, 5% from corporations, and the bulk, 81%, from individuals. Millions of people giving diverse dollar amounts fuel the world’s charities. There’s no question about it.


We’ve established that individuals like you are the backbone of the world’s charitable giving. The question still remains: how effective is your gift? Can you make a difference on the same level as multi-million dollar givers who regularly make the news for the gifts? The short answer is “yes.”


Last year, 2020, will always belong to the pandemic. A year lost to disease, yes, but defined as well by people who came together to help each other. People gave 7.5% more in the first half of the year than they did during the same time period in 2019, mostly with gifts of less than $250. Small donations rose 19.2%, with 7.2% more donors than the previous year. Donors like you are only making more and more of an impact.


Effective philanthropy isn’t just about what you give; it’s about where you give it. Large donations to big, established foundations don’t always have as effective an impact as small donations to small groups or individuals. If you donate $200 and a few blankets to a local houseless people’s outreach group in advance of a major winter storm, chances are you’re going to help save lives—people living on the street will end up warm, safe, and fed. Donate that same amount to an organization, and your money might spend months tied up in bureaucracy or pad out a CEO’s multimillion-dollar payday.

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The key point, when considering how and where to give what you wish to give, is to think locally. To think about what’s relevant to your community. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with donating to a national organization, but your money will likely go further and be put to use quickly if you give it to a more local organization, within your town, your county, your parish, or your neighborhood.


Try this out: open up your search engine and type in your town or locality along with “local nonprofits,” and see what pops up. Figure out what you want to support. Make a donation. Schedule another one for the following month, the following year, or whatever makes sense for you. Can’t find one you’re passionate about? Ask yourself why, and then start thinking about how you might be able to fill that gap. If you need help, ShareYourself is a great place to start.


ShareYourself plays host to a long roster of locally-focused, community-first projects across the globe. We’ve got a comprehensive suite of project management tools to facilitate your world-betterment dreams. Our community is very collaborative and helpful—if you’re feeling lost, reach out to the people behind projects you admire. You—yes, you—can change the world.



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#philanthropy #community #giving
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