Top 10 charitable gift ideas for this holiday season

Debra England

12/16/2006 12:01:00 AM - Debra England

People often wonder how it is that after harnessing the wealth-producing power of free markets in a free society, so many self-made millionaires have left a legacy of charitable foundations apparently dedicated to undermining the very principles and institutions which made their wealth possible.

Fortunately, Americans are such a generous people that of $250 billion in annual charitable giving, 75% comes from 225 million private individuals - far outweighing the donations of foundations. By adopting a strategic, investment-minded approach to funding, everyday Americans can amplify the impact of their charitable giving while supporting the values upon which our nation was founded.

As a professional in philanthropy, I find my desk filled with daily reminders of the old proverbial wisdom: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Most non-profit organizations market their good intentions to prospective donors, but good intentions count for little. You would not retain a stockbroker who produced mediocre returns for your investment portfolio no matter how good his intentions. Similarly, only high performance results deserve your charitable dollars.

A strategic donor must be ruthlessly demanding. In the absence of competitive market forces, the average non-profit organization is significantly less effective, less efficient, less innovative and more poorly managed than the average for-profit company. But if you seek impact with your donations, you must look for investment opportunities in organizations that are performance-driven and strategically aligned with your values. Myfavorite funding strategies also promote synergies and multiplier effects in pursuit of well-defined, principled objectives.

The top ten charitable gift ideas (linked) below prove that you can be ruthlessly demanding as a strategic donor and still get the warm fuzzies when you decide to give:

1) Wounded Warriors Disabled Sports Clinics

How can any American ever repay the personal debt we owe our fellow citizen soldiers who return from war irrevocably physically altered? Sun Valley Adaptive Sports is the leading organization serving the most severely wounded Service members nationwide: 4,500 with traumatic brain injuries, amputated limbs, spinal cord injuries, severe burns, and blindness. SVAS provides year-round disabled sports training ranging from alpine skiing, sled hockey and paragliding to hand cycling, rock climbing (in wheelchairs!) and kayaking. Donations cover the entire cost. (Make sure SVAS knows your donation is restricted to their programs for injured Service members.)

The power of this model goes far beyond the technical demands of physical rehabilitation to provide a kind of psychological and emotional skillset that can put these young veterans on a successful life path despite the deep trauma of life-altering wounds. In volunteering, these young warriors offer to yield us - if need be - the gift of their lives. Through this program, I believe we have the opportunity and the blessing to help restore those lives back to them. The expense of these disabled veterans sports clinics is tremendously cost-effective, but their value is beyond price.

2) Foundation for Defense of Democracies

The high-stakes mission of this exceptionally performance-driven organization is in the name. Their team consists of the most competent and professionally skilled set of professionals I have found in any non-profit. FDD's broad range of activities includes shutting down transmission of Hezbollah's TV network across Europe, training women from Afghanistan and Iraq to participate in representative democracy, providing fellowships to study counterterrorism with world-class experts, and supporting the work of Claudia Rosett who exposed the multi-billion dollar UN Oil for Food scandal.

3) Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies

These unique law school based organizations were originally founded with help from the John M. Olin Foundation. Supreme Court Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are all alumni. In the war of ideas, support for the national office, or one of the 170 law school chapters, is highly strategic.

I can't make a better case for the Federalist Societies than they make for themselves (But of course, they're lawyers...): "The Federalist Society has established a beachhead in the law for those who believe that the state exists to preserve freedom; that the separation of governmental powers is central to our Constitution; and that it is emphatically the province of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be."

4) Public Interest Law Firms

If you are concerned about how our society is being re-shaped by contemporary judicial activism and the erosion of the founding tenets of personal liberty, then consider strategic support for one of the many public interest law firms aligned with classical liberal values. Whether your passion lies with school choice, property rights, freedom of religious expression, or elsewhere, here is a partial list of issue-focused non-profit law firms:

FIRE - Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Institute for Justice

ACLJ - American Center for Law & Justice

National Right to Work Foundation

Second Amendment Foundation

Landmark Legal Foundation

5) Private School Voucher Programs

I am optimistic that school choice advocates will assuredly win the war for K-12 excellence one day, but meaningful choice will be diminished if small private inner city schools have not survived to that point. Private individuals can do much to fund private voucher programs in the meantime. The unmet need is astonishing.

6) Operation Blessing Relief & Development

Only two international relief and development organizations were on the ground in Banda Aceh, Indonesia within 24 hours after the Tsunami hit. This Evangelical Christian organization was flown in by the Air Force of the Muslim government and immediately established field hospitals equipped with generators, mosquito netting, and mopeds as well as doctors and nurses fluent in the local language. As the Indonesian government understands, one need not be an Evangelical Christian to appreciate the effectiveness and efficiency of this exceptional organization.

7) Chabad on Campus

When a Chabad Rabbi and his wife open a campus Chabad House they are making a lifetime commitment. As Western civilization and the traditional Judeo-Christian values of our American heritage are increasingly subject to defamation and demonization, it takes a lot of courage for students to stand against predominant campus trends. With unflinching moral clarity and unconcerned with passing fads, Chabad is able to take a stand and effect change at a fundamental level - both on campus cultures and in the lives of individual students.

8) Charter Schools

In the K-12 battle of ideas, this requires some footwork for a longterm strategic payoff. Contact charter schools in your region and offer them a “restricted donation” to purchase Education Next subscriptions for every teacher and administrator.

9) Student Essay Contest

A shrewd end-run around fortress academia: advertise in your favorite college paper to provide cash awards to encourage student readership of specific books anchored in classical liberal thought. My first choice would be Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. To make your expenditures tax deductible, arrange to pay this through an agreeable non-profit.

10) ABSOLUTELY NEVER, EVER, EVER WRITE AN UNRESTRICTED CHECK TO YOUR COLLEGE ALMA MATER AGAIN.

Finally, for the friend or relative who has everything, consider making a charitable gift in their name.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! And may your taxes be light!