Eileen Heisman is president and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Your early holiday reminders probably look different than they did a few years ago. The late November calendar is stacked: November 24, Thanksgiving Day; November 25, Black Friday; November 26, Small Business Saturday; November 28, Cyber Monday; November 29, Giving Tuesday.
“Giving Tuesday is now 11 years old and began as a kitchen table conversation. It worked its way up to a national celebratory day of giving or volunteering. There are now 80 countries around the world that recognize the event– it was just 65 countries a few years ago. It’s been fun to see it grow,” says Giving Tuesday Ambassador Eileen Heisman. “Of course, it’s named differently in other countries, and some charities have a lot of fun with the name. In Michigan there’s Giving Blue Day, in Philadelphia, where I work, an organization that collects accessories for women job applicants has Giving Shoes Day, but it’s all about giving, and some have even expanded the day into a longer time frame – more like a movement than a day,” she adds.
Heisman is the President and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust (NPT). She has been recognized as one of the top 50 most influential executives in the philanthropic sector nine times, by the NonProfit Times, most recently this year. She has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, CBS MarketWatch, the Washington Post, and other national media. In addition to her leadership role, she lectures for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
NPT, Heisman’s organization is a public charity dedicated to providing expertise to donors, foundations, and financial institutions. It is a donor-advised fund, that allows families and individuals to make a charitable donation, receive a tax deduction, and then recommend grants from the fund over time. Founded in 1996, NPT has raised more than $40.5 billion in contributions, and currently manages $22.2 billion in charitable assets.
As an expert in giving, Heisman has several suggestions to make charitable contributions the most effective they can be and also offers ways to protect donors from fraudulent solicitations. “People are easily bombarded on Giving Tuesday. Last year $2.7 billion was raised in 24 hours,” she says. “Giving online is so easy now – with just a link to an email or a video, you can find causes to care about.”
She cautions that because it’s so easy to give away money with a few clicks, to avoid direct links. Instead, Heisman advises, if you find a cause or charity of interest, close out of the email or video link and go through Google. Get to the donation/giving page of the organization via its official website. “You’re doing the charity two favors,” she says. “Donating through a third party like Facebook for a friend’s birthday, for example, your money gets to the charity, but not your contact information. It’s expensive and difficult for organizations to continually look for new donors. It’s better to go to the official website, donate there, and then tell your friend you gave directly.”
Another way to be an effective donor is to offer several larger donations to fewer organizations, rather than splitting up your gifts in small amounts to a lot of charities. “Pick causes important to you, the ones you think would benefit from the largest gift,” Heisman says. A random example is a $300 budget for the giving season. “Give $100 to three charities,” she says. “And stay in touch with them over the year. You can be a predictable funding source. Start with Giving Tuesday, and then consider making regular donations throughout the year, monthly or quarterly. When charities have a better picture of what’s coming in, it’s easier for them to plan. And stick with them for several years,” she recommends. “You don’t need a new cause every year.”
Next is the decision between giving to a large corporate-style organization versus a smaller ‘mom and pop’ charity. Heisman says this is up to the donor. “Giving to small organizations is really important. That’s how they get bigger. I’m a big fan of these charities. They have a scrappy, entrepreneurial spirit. You need to look at your own taste and how you’re effectively giving back.” And no matter the size, she says, be sure to investigate to familiarize yourself with their operation. Look to see who’s on the board. Search for the 990-tax file, which should be available. Call people who know the organization better. “I laugh but it’s true – spend as much time researching an unfamiliar charity as if it were a new restaurant you’re going to try. Make yourself more comfortable with who you’re giving to,” she says.
Finally, she adds, watch out for fraudulent activity. “Some people make up names of charities and send a link or email that’s similar to a legitimate charity. Also, be aware that Go Fund Me campaigns are not charitable in nature – you can’t be sure where that money is going, and there is no tax deduction for a donation. Never agree to give in to a solicitation over the phone – never give your credit card out over the phone.” Heisman indicates that charities historically receive 40 percent of their donations over the last few weeks of the year. “Whoever is asking, just pause to think about it and protect yourself from a person who may have created a fake charity, so your money can go instead to a legitimate non-profit.”