Philanthropy Do's and Don'ts

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A primer for newbies on the best ways to donate your time, money, energy and influence to a favorite cause.

Don't overcommit "People always underestimate how time-consuming genuine philanthropy is if you really want to get involved," says Sarah Adolphson, who manages the WME Foundation and emphasizes that supporters will be expected to educate themselves, go to events, raise money and more. "It can't be done just with tweets."

Don't speak out on day one "Meaningful engagement on any issue is dependent on credible advocacy," says Trevor Neilson of the Global Philanthropy Group, which advises clients including Madonna, Shakira and John Legend. "All of that is dependent on being well-versed about the subject." He adds that with a high-profile figure, it takes six to nine months for them to be prepared enough to speak publicly on an issue.

Do get to know the organization gradually UTA Foundation director Rene Jones says connecting with a nonprofit is "in essence a get-to-know-you process, but with an emphasis on learning. There has to be hands-on volunteerism, site visits and basically learning the essence of the organization."

Do focus on one issue "A mistake that's commonly made is attempting to become a master juggler and touch too many issues at once," says Chad Griffin, CEO of Griffin Schake, who does philanthropic advising for clients including Rob Reiner, Jerry Zucker and Douglas Wick. "You have to become the expert in the one issue you really care about and stick with it."

Do go where your passion is "If it's not something that inspires you, you're not going to follow through," says WME's Adolphson. "With corporate philanthropy, it should align with your business, but personal philanthropy should be something that really touches you."

Do make sure the charity is run like a business "A charity has to have a long-term financial plan," says Kate Moulene, CEO of nonprofit consultant Capian Enterprises, who has worked with the United Nations, CARE and the Michael Milken Foundation. "You don't want to be involved with a group that's constantly trying to figure how to survive the next month." For more information, visit a website like Guidestar or Charity Navigator.

Don't jump in by trying to start your own foundation "Most of the time people are better off going with an existing organization that already has the infrastructure in place and is doing the work," says UTA's Jones. "It's better to go with the value-added and leverage what they're doing."

Do remember that there's transparency in the nonprofit world Tax records are public. There's little room to hide. For example, Wyclef Jean paid himself $100,000 to perform at a benefit concert for his own charity in January. This might be legal, but it didn't play well in the media when the news came out.