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Money News: Big Giving for Small Nonprofits: How to Leave Your Legacy with Impact

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While no one likes reminders of their mortality, there are some decisions that you can make today that will leave a lasting good long after your time on Earth. One of the most important steps you can take now is to choose a smaller, community-based organization to gift a portion of your remaining assets.


Stories of Giving

Recently, I was reading the print edition of my small-town's newspaper, and on the front page, I came across a story about a "modest" gentleman who passed away recently and bequeathed nearly $250,000 to a small music program in the mountains near my home. It was a lovely gesture since this organization does not typically receive these types of legacy gifts. This gentleman, though an avid attendee of the music program's concerts, hadn't donated money to this organization in years. As a result, this gift came as a complete, yet thrilling, surprise to the program - and that's precisely what makes it so great.

Another of my favorite stories of giving is that of Oseola McCarty; the laundress, who left $150,000, her entire life savings, to the University of Southern Mississippi. Given her modest earnings and the fact that Ms. McCarty quit school in the sixth grade, nobody on the planet, except maybe her banker, knew she had that kind of cash to leave behind.

Small Charities. Big Impact.

According to Giving USA, The Annual Report on Philanthropy, adjusted for inflation, total charitable giving rose 3.0 percent over 2012. That's great news! But I have always been intrigued by where people choose to leave their legacy, It is one of the last things we do, and it can be one of the most impactful final acts for family or a favorite charity. These kinds of stories give me pause for thought; although my husband and I are far from wealthy, we are financially comfortable, and it is likely that we will have assets with which to leave our legacy.

But when it comes to where we leave our legacy, my husband and I are bucking the trend; we have made a conscious decision to focus our legacy away from larger, more popular, charitable organizations. I know they do great work, but there are thousands of smaller organizations who are doing good in the world, but struggle to keep the lights on.

Smaller organizations deserve just as much attention as the larger nonprofits, but unlike these large entities that have the budgets to run national fundraising drives, smaller charities struggle with resource constraints. It is personally reassuring to consider that these smaller organizations will benefit more deeply from what my husband and I leave behind. Our somewhat modest gift can make a huge impact on their mission. Consider this: $100,000 won't go very far in a big organization with hundreds of staff across the globe, and multiple expenses. But, imagine what $100,000 could do for a school in your community, or your local food bank.

Understanding The Smaller Organizations

As marketing director for a tech company focused on the nonprofit sector, I feel fortunate that I have access to hundreds of small community-based nonprofits and the people who manage them. Every day I get to see first-hand how these organizations are changing lives. I love my work because my company is part of the sphere of good, happening in communities around the country. But what I also see is how these organizations struggle each day to support their missions. And when the vast majority of their time is spent fundraising rather than delivering their services, something needs to change. That's where leaving a personal legacy can have a tremendous impact.

How To Give Big To Small Organizations: Your Legacy Field Guide

1. If you don't already have a list of organizations in mind, do a little research. Ask friends, family members or coworkers for their favorite charities. Check your local paper, your city's website or even contact local law enforcement or social service agency.

2. Next, look for organizations with operating budgets less than $1 million. These are the hyper-focused missions that can benefit the most from your gift.

3. Identify the causes on your list that are important to you. This should be the easy part. Is it animal welfare, education, homelessness, health care, the environment, or something else? The options are endless.

4. Narrow your list by determining what you believe will benefit your community the most. It doesn't necessarily mean that their work only serves your community, but it does mean that the community as a whole benefits from its work or its presence. 

5. Add the organization to your will or trust. Make sure to include any special instructions directing how the funds are to be used. Note: I caution against a request that prohibits the funds from being used for administrative purposes. It's the administrative functions that make the mission happen and too many organizations are hamstrung by those types of requests. Wouldn't it be cool if someone directed an organization to use part of their bequeath to fund an annual thank you party for staff and volunteers, or to focus the funds on technology or building upgrades for the organization?  

Just like Oseola McCarty, you have the power to support whatever mission is important to you. Consider directing a portion of your estate to a struggling mission and ultimately to those who benefit from that mission. You can still provide for your family and larger organizations with your legacy funds, just consider including at least one community-based mission. Leaving a legacy that helps others long after we are gone can change the lives of those in need.

About The Author
Gretchen Barry is director of marketing and communications for NonProfitEasy, a technology company challenging the status quo for the greater good. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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