Should You Donate Cash or Time This Holiday Season?

With the holiday season officially upon us, many are looking to give to charities, non-profit organizations or local co-ops. But choosing whether to give by means of money or volunteer hours can prove difficult depending on your financial or free-time situation. Plus, once you decide which option better fits your lifestyle, an entirely new set of factors come into play, including doing research on whether a charity is legitimate and what services they actually need help with.

Before you think money is the only way to help out a cause you’re passionate about, think again. Giving goes far beyond writing a check or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Some charities may welcome your expertise in public relations to promote their cause or graphic design to create brochures and flyers. So, what’s the best way for you to give back?

Donate cash

If you find yourself with some extra income this year, you might consider giving it to those who need it more than yourself. December marks the top month that Americans fund nonprofits and their programs, including education, the arts, social welfare, disaster relief, and others. In fact, the U.S. set a record in 2015 of donating $265 billion, according to the annual Giving USA report, and that number is only estimated to grow as it has every year since 2009.

If you don’t exactly have a favorite charity or want to see just where your money will go when donating to an organization you are passionate about, where should you start? Whether you’re considering sending your dollars to a local or nationally recognized program, do your research beforehand to see how much the charity took in the year before, how much that money went to those they promise to help and how much was dispensed to employees or other promotional materials. Use sites like GuideStar, which is a free website with access to 1.8 million U.S. nonprofits and their financial records, to look up a specific charity and feel confident your hard-earned cash will actually help those you wish to give to.

Once you find a charity with a mission you’re passionate about, donate directly through the organization’s website or mailing address rather than through a third party or any links you receive in an email. Although the charity you’re donating to may be real, the third party fundraising costs may take up as much as two-thirds of your donation, or worse yet, the fundraiser may not even be legitimate. Instead of clicking donate on a Kickstarter campaign or shelling out cash to a telemarketer, go directly to the charity’s website. This way, you’ll know exactly where your money is headed and it will be taken in-full without any service fees or additional charges. You’ll feel assured your dollars are donated to the charity you want to reach, and the charity will receive your full donation that they might not otherwise get if you went through a fundraising service.

Donate time

What if you don’t exactly have the extra funds to dole out your dollars this year but still want to make a difference? Some charities need both cash donations and volunteer service to operate, so giving in terms of time might be the right fit for you. If you’re not sure where to begin or are new to a community, online volunteer databases can match you with charities based on your skillsets or the organization’s needs. Sites like VolunteerMatch, DoSomething.org or Idealist can help you find a volunteering opportunity you’ll enjoy, feel passionate about and that truly needs your assistance.

Volunteering doesn’t strictly mean face-to-face interaction, like tutoring kids at an after-school program or serving meals at a homeless shelter. Some organizations could use your skills just as much. If you see a program you’re interested in needs help managing their website, creating promotional materials, or even painting their workspace, just ask. Filling these positions that illustrate your career training or interests could be just as important and welcomed by the organization.

The winner

Choosing a top contender isn’t exactly black and white when it comes to helping a charity. Before you decide whether to give your money or labor, consider these factors: your disposable income, your free time, and your skill sets. If a charity you’re passionate about isn’t based in your community or you’re unable to offer them a service, like building a website or setting up a coat drive, look into giving cash. But first, check into the charity’s credentials on a non-profit database that shares organizations’ tax documents. If you see it’s legitimate, consider donating through the organization’s website or by mailing in a check to their headquarters. Giving through a third party could mean your money isn’t being donated in-full if they take fees for workers’ compensation or processing charges, whereas donating directly to the organization means they’re getting your full offering.

If giving money isn’t in your wheelhouse this season, check into donating your time or skill sets. Volunteer websites can help match you with a charity in your area that fits your interests or expertise. Plus, you’ll see how your work helps the cause firsthand. Whatever route you choose to take, know that your selfless act will mean the world to someone else. You may just find yourself coming back time and time again beyond the holiday season to help. When you give good, you feel good!

Emily is a recent graduate and proud Midwesterner who just moved to the big city to start her career in magazine journalism. When she isn't commuting between Brooklyn and Manhattan, she enjoys browsing bookstores for her next read, sipping chai tea lattes at local coffee shops, and playing tourist in the city she always dreamed of living in.