How to Donate to Charity, for Free

8 ways to be generous without spending more

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A recession might seem like a strange time to become a do-gooder. With plenty of constraints on your own budget, helping others is probably the last priority on your to-do list. But charities need more help than ever because there are more people in need and also because consumers tend to reduce their own giving by about 2.7 percent during long recessions, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. (The average household typically gives about $2,247 a year.)

Besides, being charitable doesn't necessarily meaning forking over cash: It also includes volunteer work, blood donation, and even signing up to be an organ donor. Here are eight ways to donate to charity—without spending any more money than you already are.

Develop a plan. Many of us give haphazardly throughout the year, donating $30 for a friend's walkathon and $100 at a school auction. But Lisa Endlich, author of Be the Change, says that's a mistake. "It doesn't make you an effective giver. You don't know how the giving is being used, and it's not something that's integral and important to you," she says. "People do their best giving when they focus on what matters to them the most."

Instead, Endlich recommends that people ask themselves what one or two things matter most to them and what will affect others most. Inspiration can come from almost anywhere, including movies, a conversation with friends, or a magazine article. When you give to those priorities, you won't spend any more money than you already did throughout the year, but it will be in a way that better reflects your values.

[For more, read In a Recession, It Pays to Give More.]

Learn everything you can about your chosen cause. Bill Gates recently shared this advice for would-be philanthropists with the New York Times: "The key thing is to pick a cause, whether it's crops or diseases or great high schools.... Pick one, and get some more in-depth knowledge" by traveling, reading, or volunteering. Studying up on your cause doesn't need to cost much money, but it will make you a more informed—and more effective—giver.

Give of yourselfliterally. Gretchen Rubin, creator of a blog called the Happiness Project blog and author of a forthcoming book by the same name, says that signing up to be an organ donor or giving blood can boost your own mood, especially in a recession. "If you're feeling impoverished . . . a way to counteract that feeling is to do something generous," she says. It's a way of convincing yourself that you have something to give, adds Rubin.

Start planning for the holidays now. Local organizations often arrange gift drives. In Northern Virginia, for example, the Alexandria Department of Human Services connects local givers with families in need of assistance. Instead of doubling your own shopping bill, talk with family members about putting the money you would have spent on each other toward gifts for a family in need. To make the decision even more affordable, join up with friends to share the cost of gifts.

Give time. Volunteering at a hospital, making dinner for a sick person, or working in a soup kitchen all are ways to donate your resources, and they don't cost much. To make it more fun—and even more affordable—sign up with a friend.

Make sure your money is being used wisely. If you do decide to donate money, you want to be sure it's being spent wisely. One helpful site is Charity Navigator. Just type in the name of the organization and see what pops up.

Clean out your closet. Many nonprofits and shelters are constantly looking for used books, clothes, CDs, and other items. Spending a few hours cleaning out your house could result in several bags of goodies—and you'll have a cleaner house.

Find power in numbers. Lisa Philp, head of philanthropic services at JPMorgan Private Bank, says women in particular often enjoy working together to fund projects. You don't necessarily give more than you would have otherwise, but you generate more leverage. Giving circles, where a group of people pools money and jointly decides where to put it, are one way to do that. Philp participates in one in New York that focuses on supporting projects or organizations led by Asian-American women.