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More Americans are in a giving mood

More Americans are in the giving mood this year, thanks to a slowly improving economy that's making people a shade less fearful they'll get a pink slip instead of a holiday bonus. Still, many need to mind their budgets when opening their hearts.

CHICAGO - More Americans are in the giving mood this year, thanks to a slowly improving economy that's making people a shade less fearful they'll get a pink slip instead of a holiday bonus.

Still, many need to mind their budgets when opening their hearts.

Thirty-six percent of charities reported an increase in donations during the first nine months of the year, up from 23 percent during the same time period in 2009, according to the Nonprofit Research Collaborative, a group that includes the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Blackbaud, and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, among others.

And 37 percent reported a decrease in giving the first three quarters of this year, down from 51 percent that said the same last year.

"Based on what we've seen so far ... we would extrapolate that this end of the year is likely to be better than what it was in 2009 but not nearly what it was in 2007 - the best on record," said Melissa S. Brown, associate director of research for The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

It's possible that Americans are starting to be more generous as they gain more confidence in their job security. "Maybe the pink-slip phase has passed by, and people can count on having their jobs a little longer," she said.

Another survey released in October found that 55 percent of American donors plan to maintain their level of charitable giving in the fourth quarter, and 8 percent said they'd give more than in past years because the need for help is more acute, according to research from the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund. About 600 adults participated in the survey, and all of them intended to donate $200 or more to charity in 2010.

All that said, there are plenty of Americans who are still affected by a job loss, underemployment or fear that they will lose their jobs. Even for them, there are plenty of affordable ways to donate this time of year.

If you're giving on a budget, stop and think before you give, to be sure that what you're able to donate has the greatest impact for your cause, said Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, an independent public charity dedicated to increasing philanthropy.

Every dollar makes a difference, said Lisa M. Dietlin, president of Lisa M. Dietlin & Associates, a Chicago-based philanthropic consulting agency for individuals and nonprofits. Cash donations are typically most helpful because they allow nonprofits to distribute money where it's most needed.

But the trick to donating funds on a budget is making every dollar you give feel meaningful to you. Your mailbox may be jammed with fundraising pleas from your alma mater and any other nonprofit you've ever supported. But before giving a dime, decide what your giving goals are and try to resist the onslaught of direct mail.

"People get really overwhelmed about the number of appeals in their mailbox. Make a plan, set a budget and do the best you can," Dietlin said. "Don't let guilt drive you. Make a decision."

Re-evaluate past giving decisions and be flexible, Heisman said. Just because you liked something five years ago doesn't necessarily mean you will feel the same about it this year, she said.

Research organizations online, Heisman said. Want to have the vetting done for you? There's no shame in finding out who famous philanthropists - Bill Gates or former President Bill Clinton, for example - are giving to these days and piggyback on them, she said. They have teams of people vetting organizations on their behalf.

Remember, too, that while every dollar counts, a smaller donation can have a greater impact on a smaller organization, Heisman said. It's the big fish/small pond scenario: While a $25 donation might be a drop in the bucket for a large institution, it could mean a lot to a smaller one.

VOLUNTEERING: Those short on funds might consider giving their time this year.

In fact, 66 percent of donors who plan on giving less this year are considering making other types of donations instead of cash at the end of the year, according to the Fidelity survey. Nearly 60 percent said they would give time and skills and 21 percent said they'd give other assets, including cars or antiques.

But do some research before signing up to volunteer. For some charities, your committing to only one day of service may cost the organization money, Heisman said.

Think about it: Some groups hire people to train volunteers, who may spend a sizable chunk of time on your initial visit just getting you acclimated, she said. For your service to be truly beneficial to the organization, consider making a multi-day commitment.

When you do sign up, don't flake out at the last minute, Dietlin said. Show up. While cancelling may not seem like a big deal to you, it will be to the group that is counting on you to be there.

GET CREATIVE: If you're short on funds - and time, too - think even more practically.

During buy-one-get-one-free sales at the grocery store, consider donating the extra item - especially if you might not use it anyway, Dietlin said. Or if you're a member of a warehouse club and buy, say, a pack of 24 rolls of paper towels, give your favorite nonprofit half of your bounty.

Get your children into the giving spirit, asking them to pick out a couple of old toys that could be cleaned up and donated to a good cause, Heisman said. Take the kids along to drop off the items, so they can see who will benefit. (Tread lightly here, and help kids understand the purpose of what they're doing, lest the effort become a traumatic experience.)

On the other end of the age spectrum, senior citizens on fixed incomes might not have the funds to donate right now, but may wish to give to their favorite charities in their wills. "Some of the most generous gifts from middle-income people are gifts that are given in their wills," Heisman said.

But perhaps the easiest way to give: Regift holiday presents you don't want. Whether it's an unwanted sweater or a gift card, someone in need can surely find a use for it.

(c) 2010, Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.