A Guide to Renewing Your Charitable Intentions

Humans came with autopilot long before the technology was incorporated into airplanes.  Each of us drifts into “cruise control” in so many areas of our lives, from our relationships to our workday schedules to our charitable giving.

Great things happen when we turn the autopilot off to check in on our habits and routines. The New Year (or a pandemic!) may be the most common enforcer of an autopilot break. It’s so noticeable and we all do it together.

Anniversaries offer a similar and more personal opportunity to reflect, if we allow the space and time for it. It equally applies to birthdays, the annual family vacation, or, for the extremely intentional, just the end of the workweek.

Charitable giving doesn’t have a pre-built spot on the calendar where we reflexively pause to consider and renew our intentions. For some, the last days of December serve as a forcing mechanism for getting one’s giving done, but rushing is not renewing.

I advocate for finding a day each year – even just an hour on a day – to ponder your philanthropic goals and intentions and to make sure your actions line up. In doing so, you’ll see your giving strengthen, leading to more impact.

Why Pause?

Priorities change. In the rush of the world around us, our desires and actions can easily get out of sync. Inertia carries us forward. We take the same commute to work each day, even defying Waze when it suggests a slightly shorter alternative.

Our charitable giving is no different. Many people have a list of charities they give to, year in and year out. I know this is true for me. Some on my list are on there for sentimental reasons for a time in my life long past, back when we had no kids and lived in a different area.

These are still good causes. But the question I – and all of us – must ask is whether giving to them enables me to do the most good with my dollars.

Find a time in the year to commit to pausing and reflecting. It’s a concept that author Nir Eyal calls “timeboxing” (I go into more detail in this post on how to be indistractable in your giving). This might not be the same time as you do your giving – perhaps it’s better if it isn’t. What you need is the distance to contemplate the goals and purpose of your giving without the rush of getting a check out the door.

How to Renew Your Giving

In the fundraising world, donor relation managers place a high value on renewals – the commitment of past donors to give again. That’s no surprise – recurring revenue certainly makes it easier to reach one’s budget. Those renewed gifts also serve as a vote of confidence that donors still see your mission as important.

Yet a renewal of dollars should mean something. For you, that means cross-checking the gifts against your goals – and to do that, you have to have your goals written down!

In our 8 Steps to Securing Your Donor Intent, we walk through a step-by-step process for considering your charitable intentions. Through it all, and explicitly in step 6, we recommend writing down your philanthropic goals and principles. That way, you always have something to look back on. It also serves as a starting point for updates you wish to make.

If you already have a written intent statement, or at least have a clear purpose in your head, figure out which gifts you’re regularly making that no longer seem a fit.

Another way to think about it is the Marie Kondo tidying method – does the gift still spark joy in you? If not, thank it for its service and consider how those freed-up charitable dollars might be deployed more strategically.

Big Changes, Small Changes

That annual (or quarterly, or whatever time period is appropriate) check-in on your giving is a small step. The bigger one is renewing to your overall giving strategy.

Outlining your donor intent shouldn’t be a one-and-done activity. At some point, you’ll realize that there are principles on which you’ve shifted, organizations you’ve soured on, and causes you didn’t know existed when you first wrote out your intentions.

There’s no perfect timetable for updating your intent, but don’t let too much time pass. A friend recently told me he had started updating his will because he realized the existing document was created in time to mention his son but not his daughter – who is now 23!

One way to mark it is every time you have a birthday that bumps your age to one ending in a 0 or a 5. Perhaps you do it whenever there is a major life event.

(By the way, if you need more convincing to update your donor intent, as well as your estate plans, look at this amusing post from my colleague Stephanie Lips about a bequest gift of books she probably shouldn’t have received.)

Remember, updating your giving should only make your giving stronger. It will help you leave a more defined legacy. It will, above all, bring you and those your giving helps more joy. That seems a good trade-off for breaking the comfort of autopilot every once in a while.


  • Peter Lipsett

    Peter Lipsett is vice president at DonorsTrust. He also leads DonorsTrust’s Novus Society, a network of donors under 40 committed to growing their philanthropic know-how. He has a dual degree in political science and theater from Davidson College and finally got a practical credential with an MBA from George Mason University.

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