By Michael M. Sonduck

When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, my parents were active in our congregation and in our town. Dad, a small business owner, was president of the congregation. Our stay-at-home Mom helped establish one of the first juvenile justice programs in the county courts (a precursor of today’s child advocacy programs). I never saw my parents’ names on a donor plaque or listed as sponsors of fundraising events. Their donations were almost always made to organizations they were already supporting in other ways.

Time, Talent, and Treasure is a common three-pronged approach, framing ways to get engaged with nonprofits. Time is the metaphor for volunteering, talent means getting involved in a leadership capacity, and treasure refers to monetary donations. In that parlance, my parents were time and talent donors, primarily offering their energy and experience to help others.

From them, and subsequently from my experience as a nonprofit executive, I’ve learned that before giving any of your resources to a charity, it’s important to apply a “Heart, Head & Hands” approach to your charitable work. Knowing how you feel about the work of the charity, its effectiveness and management, and how your time, talent, and treasure are being used will help lead to a rewarding relationship.

Give to organizations that you believe in and that work for causes that matter to you. But temper your choices by learning everything you can about the organizations. Finally, be ready to work on behalf of an organization to which you give, whether that work comes in the form of your time as a volunteer, your talent as a leader or your treasure as a donor.

You can apply the Heart, Head & Hands approach by answering these seven questions:

  1. What matters the most to you and why? Begin with this question and make sure everyone who is going to be part of the decision agrees to the answers. Talk to each other, or if the decision is yours alone, talk to a friend, colleague, or trusted advisor to help clarify your thinking. Be sure to include geography in your discussion. Many families want to help address global issues, but focus on their local community, while others want to make a difference in outcomes worldwide. Once you’re clear about what matters most, you’re ready to proceed.
  2. Which tax-exempt charities work in the areas of interest to you? There are lots of well-intentioned people and organizations trying to help others. Many of these make appeals to help a specific person address a unique challenge, for example raising funds to pay someone’s rent, or help with a medical procedure. You can contact the person who organized the campaign to assure yourself that it’s legitimate. That’s harder to do when an organization is raising funds for a regional, national, or global humanitarian, educational, religious, or societal purpose. Begin locally and small by asking folks you trust about which organizations, of which they’re aware, work in the areas of your interests. Next, learn to use Charity Navigator or Guidestar, the two largest sources of data and valuable information about US-based charities. Each has online tutorials and both are free.
  3. What does the charity care about and is that important to you? Begin by looking at a charity’s web site, but don’t stop there! Call them, tell them you’re a prospective donor, and that you want to speak with someone about their work and results. If they’re local, set up a face-to-face meeting to ask about ways you can be involved. Specifically, ask about their mission, goals, and history of success.
    • What is your organization’s mission? Healthy organizations know exactly who they are, what they do, and why they are needed.
    • What are their goals and what progress are they making towards their goals? Effective organizations communicate their goals clearly and have means of demonstrating their progress. Ask the organization what it has done to make the issue it confronts better. Can the organization demonstrate how their actions have impacted their progress?
    • How will you know that your resources will be well used? Responsible, honest, and well-managed charities demonstrate transparency.
  1. How will the charity use the funds that you plan to give? Whether you’re a modest or major donor, you should ask for detailed program-by-program reports that compare goals, budgets, and results over time. You may want to ask your philanthropic, financial or tax advisor to review the organization’s annual report, IRS Form 990, and audited financials to make sure they are spending your dollars as you intend. Are they sufficiently funded to actually address the issues named in their mission? If they have very large reserves, why? Who manages them?
  2. How does the charity collaborate with researchers, other charities, foundations, or experts to set goals, utilize resources more effectively, or share costs? The most intractable issues we face in our society (poverty, health, security, mental health, etc.) are unlikely to be solved by any one organization. The trend in philanthropy is toward collaborations. Even among smaller, local charities collaboration is a hallmark of success. You can use the Foundation Center’s database to search for funder and organizations by field of interest, then contact those organizations in your area and ask if they are working with charities in your geography and/or your fields of interest.
  3. Is there a place for you, or just for your money? Even if you’re not looking for a Board seat, or another volunteer activity, knowing how an organization engages its supporters is an important window on its philosophy. If you’re always welcome at donor events, but your phone calls about new ideas are seldom returned, then you need to ask yourself whether it’s the kind of organization that works for you. Effective use of volunteers is an indication that the charity understands the value of this critical resource and has planned effectively.
  4. What is your charitable plan for the future? Families for whom charity is more than a “tax effectiveness” tactic will find benefit in having a multi-year plan, just as they do for other important parts of their life.

Time, Talent, and Treasure are your stock in trade as a charitable supporter. Knowing how you want to use each comes from applying a consistent strategy based on your heart, head and hands. What are your goals? How well are you using your philanthropic resources to accomplish those goals? Is it time for a mid-course correction? All these questions, and more, form the basis for a rich discussion, successful planning, and rewarding results.

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Michael Sonduck provides private, customized Philanthropic Advice for individuals and families who want to make more impact with their giving. He has been a volunteer and professional leader of charitable organizations for more than 40 years, most recently as President & CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, a multi-million-dollar charity. His experience stewarding major, multi-year gifts, working with multi-generational families and creating new, community-wide programs backed by large donors makes him uniquely qualified to address the current needs of today’s philanthropists. Email Michael for more information at

Click to view an interview with the author!