Budgeting for Charitable Giving on a Non-Profit Grantwriter’s Salary

When looking for my first salaried job after two and a half years of post-college freelance/minimum wage work, my financial priorities were:

  1. Moving into a one-bedroom apartment
  2. Buying the fancy cheddar at the grocery store
  3. Being able to donate more money

I had previously been making between $14,000–$19,000 a year by working as a combination of freelance radio producer, bike mechanic, restaurant server, and a number of other random jobs. At that point, the only giving I felt like I could afford was about $25 a month, thrown at whatever organization sent me the most timely fundraising email. I was legitimately excited that I would be able to start giving away higher amounts, and more regularly, to organizations and people that I love.

I now make $41,820 working in fundraising at a non-profit (so I guess I just generally love both raising and donating money). Donations (both tax deductible and not) currently make up my third largest monthly expense. I think it’s important to say here that I don’t have student loans, and I don’t have kids or any family members that I take care of. But also, this is something that I actively prioritize and value, and I have consciously built my budget to accommodate this expense.

When I was thinking about how I wanted to start donating my money, three things were very influential to me:

  1. This article that my friend Laney wrote for The Billfold a few years ago, where she talks about how, statistically, as Americans make more money, they tend to give away a smaller portion of their income. Laney’s decision to giving away 8 percent of her salary gave me a starting place — I decided to calculate what 8 percent of my salary would be, and then look at whether that was a feasible amount for me to give, alongside my other expenses.  
  2. Working in fundraising at a non-profit myself, I began to realize how helpful it was to have reliable donations from our individual donors. I decided that I wanted to donate to organizations in a way that was stable and predictable for them — in other words, to pick a few places that I really love, and donate to them on a consistent schedule.
  3. For me, spending money often feels like pulling a tooth out — I hate it, it makes me want to scream, and I will put off doing it for as long as I possibly can. But sometimes, it’s necessary!

I figured that if I was going to actually give away a significant amount of money, I’d have to make it more manageable, automatic payments, so that I wouldn’t have to keep having the internal battle of “BUT I COULD USE THAT FOR [fill in the blank]!” It also means that it would be one category that I couldn’t really skimp on if I got cold feet one month — I’d have to literally cancel these recurring donations and make them lower (which I’ve had to do before, but I’d rather not do it on a regular basis).

Based on Laney’s resolution, I too decided to calculate 8 percent of my gross salary, divide by 12, and put that money aside to donate every month. Unfortunately, I ended up having some pretty high medical expenses over the past few years, so since I began this journey, it’s had to come down to 5–6 percent.

Five percent of my monthly gross income comes down to $2,091 for the whole year, and $174.25 per month.

My recurring monthly donations are:

  1. $56 to a non-profit health clinic that’s sliding scale, LGBTQ-led and focused, and generally wonderful. I went there many times in college, and know from personal experience that they are doing great work for their patients and larger community.
  2. $35 to a bike and pedestrian advocacy group. Good bike and pedestrian infrastructure is really important to me, both as someone whose main mode of transportation is my bike, and as someone who wants to see less vehicle emissions in my city.
  3. $25 to an organization that works on the Southern border to prevent migrant death (by offering supplies and medical assistance to people crossing), and advocates for better immigration policies.
  4. $20 to a community-led, cross-race and cross-class group of folks who raise money from their networks and use it to fund social justice movements. When I was asked by one of the folks in the group to donate, I decided to cancel a small monthly donation that I had been sending to my alma mater and direct it here instead.

These donations total $136, which leaves $38.25 left over. I use that money to donate to things such as:

  • One-time fundraisers
  • GoFundMes for medical expenses
  • Political campaigns
  • Helping out a friend with financial struggles

I almost always go over this $38.25 — looking back at my list of donations, I’m actually realizing now that I spend closer to $60 most months in that “leftover” category. In November 2018, I spent $101.06, because:

  • It was Give to the Max Day (Minnesota’s big day of charitable giving) and there were a lot of organizations that I wanted to support
  • Someone I know was raising money for medical bills after a traumatic brain injury

I keep track of these donations in a spreadsheet (I also have a category in my Mint budget). It’s helpful for me to have this list so that, as I’m preparing for my taxes, I can look back and see what donations I should be deducting (I don’t itemize, but Minnesota lets taxpayers deduct a percentage of their charitable donations on top of the standard deduction) although I think taxes are ultimately good and no one should donate as a way to evade/minimize their taxes!!!

It’s also nice to be able to look back and be like “oh yeah, that place was awesome! Maybe I should donate again this month.”

In total, I donated $2,226.54 in 2018, which is 5.3 percent of my gross income. I have several friends who donate over 10 percent of their incomes, and I think that’s a an awesome goal that is worth working toward. But for 2019, I’ll start by trying to bump up to 6–7 percent. At least that’s better than Jeff Bezos!

Sophie Nikitas is a grantwriter for an economic justice non-profit in the Twin Cities by day, and a writer, podcast producer, and avid budgeter by night. She’s also a co-founder of the Anthill Collective, which puts on fun and free community events about money and values.

Photo credit: Tim Green, CC BY 2.0.