Doing Good: Our Guide to Giving Back

‘Tis the season to give.  But where? How? Time and money are always hard to come by and you want your efforts to make a real difference. We can help. Here are ways to vet a nonprofit, donate wisely, volunteer efficiently and more.

Why Give?

We all get solicited to help out  for good causes, whether it’s by attending the swanky Heart Ball or buying popcorn or cookies from a boy scout. While these charitable efforts bolster the community, you can’t give to everything.

“People should follow their passions,” says Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of theHawaii Community Foundation (HCF), the state’s largest grant-making organization, which supports various local nonprofits. “We all get asked to give to a lot of different things, but there are some things in the world we care more about than others,” he says. “People should give because we all avail ourselves of the services that are provided by the nonprofit sector. As an Island community that’s separated from everyone else by 2,300 miles, we’re community-centric and the heart of that community is really the nonprofit sector.”

Many of us also give, because, well, it feels good. According to the HCF 2009 Giving Study, when asked why donors give, half of the respondents said because it made them feel good inside. So, here’s to giving back and making a difference, no matter how big or small your contribution, whether you’re a long-time philanthropist or a first-timer.

Why Do We Give?

  • 63 percent gave because they believed in the organization’s mission
  • 53 percent gave to ease the pain and suffering of impoverished people
  • 50 percent gave because it made them feel good
  • 48 percent gave because it helped someone they knew and cared about

 Where Does Our Money Go?

There are roughly 5,000 registered nonprofits in the state. Here are the top five types of nonprofits to which Hawaii residents give.

  • 77 percent donate to human-services organizations 
  • 61 percent donate to health organizations
  • 42 percent donate to religious or spiritual organizations
  • 32 percent donate to youth-development organizations
  • 26 percent donate to education organizations

source: hawaii community foundation 2009 giving study

Be a Savvy Donor

Whether you’re writing a check with a lot of zeros, or emptying out your coin purse, there’s no reason not to be savvy. Here’s how to be in the know when it comes to charitable giving.

1. Make sure the nonprofit is a verifiable 501(c) (3). Visit and

2. Search for the organization’s financial records. Is the nonprofit spending more than half of its budget on programs and services? How is the organization investing its funds? Visit

3. Check the charity’s commitment to donors’ rights. Does it have a donor-privacy policy?

4. Does the organization provide information and data about its mission and goals and how they were (or were not) achieved?

5. Target your giving. Be specific about the difference you want to make with your donation and give to causes that are important to you.

source: charity navigator

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond


Big Time Givers

According to the Hawaii Community Foundation 2009 Giving Study, all types of Hawaii residents participate in charitable giving, from college students to single parents to high-profile executives to retirees. The only difference is the amount given. Here’s who gives the highest average contributions:

  • Oahu residents
  • Two-person households
  • Those who have lived in Hawaii for 20 years or more (but who weren’t, oddly enough, born and raised here)
  • Older residents

Do Your Homework

You work hard for your money. When you write a check or hand over a $20 bill, you want to make sure it is actually making a difference. Before you make a donation, it’s worth the time and effort to look into the nonprofit first. Thanks to the Internet, it’s pretty easy.

The HCF directs potential donors’ inquiries to websites such as or, both of which have online nonprofit information and databases, including a nonprofit’s 990 tax forms (which, because the organization is a nonprofit, excludes income tax), information about its board and executive director, its programs, goals, accomplishments and more. Both are great online resources in vetting a nonprofit’s legitimacy and worthiness, but Taketa cautions against deciding whether to donate to a nonprofit based solely upon its IRS information.

“Everyone thinks that being a savvy donor means funding organizations that have low overhead,” he says. “So if they give a dollar, how much of it is going to feeding the hungry versus paying for staff. If you only rely on things like overhead metrics, you’re going to miss funding some of the most successful organizations, because it’s only one indicator of how good an organization is.”

For example, if a nonprofit has been particularly successful within the past year, chances are its staff is looking to expand, which means if a potential donor looks over its tax forms, she or he will notice that the nonprofit incurred high fundraising expenses because of its capital campaign. “You’ve got to look at the whole picture, you can’t just look at numbers,” he says.

To do this, ask friends, relatives or co-workers if they are familiar with the organization—or know someone who is—to get first-hand knowledge of how the nonprofit operates and its interaction with the community. Or, go volunteer yourself. “Volunteering is a wonderful way to learn what’s really going on with an organization,” says Taketa.

Where To Give

Beyond Cash

Even if money feels tight these days, many of us have more stuff than we know what to do with—stuff that could make a difference to someone who can’t afford a meal or a shirt. Next time you have extra cans in your pantry, want to clean out your closet or replace your old fridge, these organizations below—and others like them, including churches—could use these goods to help those in need.

Canned goods, food items

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond

Appliances and Furniture
Computers and Small Electronics

Leaving It to a Good Cause

Many of attorney Judy Lee’s clients fold philanthropy into their wills and trusts. “In addition to providing for family members, many people want to make gifts to benefit organizations whose missions they believe in,” says Lee, who specializes in trusts and estates at law firm Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel. Here’s her advice for including charitable giving as part of estate planning.

1. Consider your philanthropic motivations. Are you doing it for the tax benefits? Because you believe in the nonprofit’s mission? Both?

2. It’s your money; choose an organization you truly want to benefit.

3. Think about the organization’s future. “I have been involved in cases where the charitable organization had closed before the donor’s death and we had to go to court to determine whether another charitable organization with a similar mission should receive the gift,” says Lee. If the nonprofit is newly formed, consider an alternate organization in the will or trust.

4. Make sure you have the nonprofit’s name right; many organizations have similar-sounding names, sometimes with completely different missions.

Lee says charitable remainder trusts are popular. When a donor with a charitable remainder trust passes away, his or her beneficiaries will receive money (either for their lifetime or a fixed number of years), as well as the charity the donor named. “It’s a win-win vehicle because both the goal of providing for family and the goal of providing for a charity can be met,” says Lee.

The Paper Trail: Some Strings Attached?

You just made a donation. It may have been the first time or the 15th, but you feel good. We all like to think that the donation to the nonprofit for keiki or beach cleanups will directly help Oahu’s children or beaches. And sometimes it does. Other times, your donation goes to a staff member’s stipend or helps pay for postage for the fundraising mailers that just went out.

HCF’s Taketa says that’s OK. “Every donor has a right to believe that the organization they’re contributing to can prove to them they’re making a difference and they’re good stewards with the funds,” he says. “That’s different than an organization being able to prove to [donors] exactly what happened with their money.”

Often, adds Taketa, it’s hard for nonprofits to specifically account for what each $50 or $75 donation covered. (Granted, this won’t be the case for those who are making large, long-term financial commitments.) However, someone from the nonprofit should acknowledge your contribution. The organization should also communicate with its donors—large and small—about achieving its goals and fulfilling its mission. If not, you may want to consider supporting one that is more responsive and transparent.

Stay Local

Many local donors make donations that stay in Hawaii, to help Hawaii’s people, environment, animals and more.

  • 69 percent of residents’ donations were nearly all local
  • 16 percent of residents’ donations were nearly all out of state
  • 15 percent of residents’ donations were half local and half out of state

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond


You cruise at the beach with your family, why not help keep it clean together, too?

photo: courtesy surfrider foundation, oahu chapter

Writing It Off

“Charitable giving during life may result in income tax benefits and charitable giving at death may result in estate tax benefits,” says Judy Lee, a trusts and estates attorney with Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel. Her advice? When you make a donation—whether monetary or goods—make sure to document it, including donation receipts with the nonprofit’s name, the date the donation was made and the amount, or a list of goods donated.

1. Make sure you can prove your donation is to a qualified nonprofit. Also, certain donations to 501 (c) 4s, such as the ACLU of Hawaii, are not tax-deductible.

2. Make sure donated goods are in good condition. If it’s junk, you can’t write it off.

3. Itemize. Make sure your total deductions are greater than the standard deduction when you do your taxes. If not, stick with the standard deduction.

The Family that Gives Together

For a lot of families, it’s never too early to start giving.  “Families are finding that making giving decisions together—how to share their time, talent and treasure—is one of the best ways to learn many of life’s skills,” says Lorraine Tamaribuchi, the director of the Hawaii Community Foundation’s family philanthropy program.

Whether it’s cleaning a beach as a family or buying a toy for Toys for Tots, giving back teaches children and teenagers the values of generosity, gratitude and empathy. The Community Foundation provides a variety of resources to foster family volunteerism. “We usually start with what is important to the family, their values and interests, and how to engage each member of the family,” says Tamaribuchi.

Here are examples of how to get children involved based on their ages.

If they’re 5 years old: By age 5, most children have empathy for others. They will most likely respond well to hands-on activities, such as helping serve meals to needy families, or gathering toys to donate to other children.

If they’re 10 years old: “Ten year olds understand the concept of helping others and sharing,” says Tamaribuchi. You can have them organize a family outing outdoors to clean streams or pick up trash along the beach.

If they’re 15 years old: Teenagers usually enjoy volunteering with friends or relatives they look up to, and doing activities on the weekends, says Tamaribuchi. It’s also a great time for them to start donating to a cause that matters to them, using money from a part-time job or from their allowance.

So You Want to be a Board Member?

Maybe you started out sending checks to your favorite nonprofit or volunteering on weekends. Serving on its board is a great way to deepen your commitment.

Francie Boland, the chair of the board of directors for the Hawaiian Humane Society, says she spends about 15 hours a month fulfilling board-related duties. In addition to attending regular board and committee meetings, Boland donates to the society, speaks at events, attends fundraisers and makes calls to donors. While she’s required to put in time and effort, she doesn’t mind it. “I love animals,” says Boland, whose day job is vice president of legal services for HMSA. “It’s a privilege to be on the board.”

When the Humane Society needs to fill a board vacancy, Boland says its members look at the board’s demographics and try to find a balanced representation, such as bringing on new members from different professional backgrounds, age groups or even places on the island. A familiarity with the organization is a must, too. “We want to attract people who are smart, passionate and committed,” says Boland.

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond


photo: courtesy of hawaiian humane society / kathy boast

A good board is one that engages its members, she says. Strong, organized boards encourage their members to attend all general board meetings and participate in board committees.

Finance plays a big role for board members, and Boland says that, while the Society’s board looks at the organization’s budget and expenses, it often takes a big-picture approach to the nonprofit’s overall direction, not its day-to-day operations. That’s why boards hire good executive directors.  

HCF runs an annual board leadership conference to offer traning to potential and current nonprofit board members. Visit

The Anatomy of a Nonprofit

For every issue, there is a nonprofit working hard to raise money, inspire volunteers and change the community. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all-volunteer, grassroots nonprofits, to local chapters of powerful national organizations. Here’s a breakdown of three Oahu nonprofits.

The Hawaiian Humane Society

Mission: The Society’s mantra is “strengthening the human, animal bond.” It does so through its 30 programs on education, animal adoption and support services, rescue operations and fighting for better animal- and pet-related laws.

Paid staff members:  70

Volunteers: Approximately 700; 67 percent of the society’s volunteers have been active for one to two years.

Annual operating budget: $6.3 million

Signature events: Pictures with Santa Paws, Tuxes and Tails and Petwalk, all of which raise about $650,000 per year.

Biggest needs right now: Donations—both money and goods—and responsible pet ownership, says executive director Pam Burns.

How the community can give: Adopt or foster a pet, or volunteer at the shelter.

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond


Surfrider Foundation, Oahu Chapter

Mission: The Surfrider Foundation is an international environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves and beaches through conservation, activism, research and education.

Paid staff members: Zero; its 14 committee members are all volunteers.

Volunteers: Between 14 and 500. The monthly beach cleanups have an average of 50 people.

Annual budget:  Budget is based off of donations. It can be as low as $1,000, says chapter co-chair Tim Tybugzewski.

Signature events: John Kelly Environmental Awards at Waimea Valley.

Biggest needs right now: Volunteers for beach cleanups.

How the community can give: Volunteer. “I’d rather have someone volunteer 100 hours than give $100,” he says.

Life Foundation Oahu

Mission: The Life Foundation is dedicated to stopping the spread of HIV and to assisting people who are living with HIV and AIDS in Hawaii.

Paid staff members:  37

Volunteers: 250; 20 volunteers help regularly with office duties and the meal program, and have been with the Foundation for more than five years.

Annual budget: $2.6 million

Signature events: The Honolulu AIDS Walk. The next walk is on April 15.

Biggest needs right now: “Diversified private funding to cover programs and activities,” says communications director, Melanie Moore.

How the community can give: Become educated about HIV/AIDS and raise both awareness and funds for the foundation by participating in the Honolulu AIDS Walk.

Related links:
30 Volunteer Ideas in Hawaii
Service Learning at Heeia Fishpond