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A dozen donation tips for holidays

Mark DeMichaelis, founder of the Olivia's Organics Charitable Foundation, with some of the $75,000 worth of toys purchased by his organization at Toys 'R' Us in Framingham last year. Mark DeMichaelis, founder of the Olivia's Organics Charitable Foundation, with some of the $75,000 worth of toys purchased by his organization at Toys 'R' Us in Framingham last year. (THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE 2007)
By Erin Burt
Kiplinger.Com / November 30, 2008
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Have you caught the spirit of the holiday season but you're low on cash?

Take heart. Even with a budget feeling the squeeze from student loans, rent, high energy bills, or other holiday expenses, you can make a difference without writing a check or charging your credit card. There are plenty of alternative opportunities available if you know where to look.

Here are 11 ways to give:

Clean out your closet. Still harboring pieces of your high school wardrobe with the delusion that you'll wear them again some day? It's time to cut them loose. Consider donating clothes and linens in good condition to a local homeless shelter, battered women's shelter, or charitable thrift store such as Goodwill or Salvation Army. While you're at it, get rid of those old knickknacks, books, dishes, CDs, furniture, and other household items you don't use any more. Not only does your donation go to help those in need, but you'll get more space in your closets. Plus, you can deduct the fair market value (not what you originally paid) of your donations on your taxes if you itemize deductions.

Volunteer. Almost anyone can write a check, but a gift of your time is priceless. More than 80 percent of charitable organizations rely on volunteers to achieve their goals, according to the Urban Institute. Whether you have one day to give or you'd like to make an ongoing commitment in the new year, you can search for opportunities in your neighborhood through VolunteerMatch, Idealist, or Network for Good. There's no tax break for the time you spend volunteering, but you can deduct other expenses related to your efforts, such as the cost of gas, parking, tolls, and long-distance phone calls.

Hold a cyber garage sale. Many charities, particularly relief agencies, prefer cold hard cash. That's because a monetary donation allows the charity to buy necessary supplies as close to the relief site as possible, saving on transportation costs and other logistical hassles, the Better Business Bureau says. If you're cash-poor but stuff-rich, consider liquidating your collectibles or bric-a-brac on eBay or Craigslist, or simply hold a low-tech yard sale. Giving cash is easier at tax time too, because you don't have to guess what your grandma's old Farberware set is really worth.

Don't throw away your old cellphone - a number of organizations such as Collective Good will gladly take it off your hands. Such groups recycle phones for cash to aid a cause or they may refurbish the phones to distribute to people in need. The Wireless Foundation, for example, refurbishes and distributes phones to victims of domestic violence to use in an emergency. Or you can sell the phone yourself and donate the cash to your favorite charity. CellforCash.com, for instance, pays up to $100 for used cellphones, depending on the model.

Give new life to an old computer. If Santa is bringing you a new computer this year, don't just dump your old one. You can donate it or your printer or scanner for reuse through the National Cristina Foundation. Fill out a form on its website, and the organization will find a group in need that will arrange to pick up your PC within two weeks. The Salvation Army and Goodwill are also good bets for donations, although some Goodwill stores don't accept PCs. Another option: You can personally try to match up with an organization or individual in need through Share the Technology.

Before giving your computer away, use disk-cleaning software to permanently delete your files. And take note: If your machine is below a Pentium or an Apple Macintosh Power PC, it's a dinosaur no one wants. "These old computers become a liability for us - it's basically like sending us a bill," says the Salvation Army's Dennis Gensler. Instead, find a final resting place for your old junker by searching for recycling programs in your area.

Shop with a cause. You have to shop this season anyway, so why not buy your holiday gifts through an online charity mall? Such sites as iGive.com and OneCause.com donate a percentage of your purchase price to the charity or school of your choice. You click links from the portal to shop dozens of popular websites including Barnes & Noble, eBay, Gap, eToys, JC Penney, Overstock.com, and Target. You pay the same price as anyone else, but the portals donate a portion of the referral fee they receive from retailers.

Click your support. A number of websites allow you to simply click a button and advertisers will donate a specified amount to charity - usually a penny or two. After you click the button, you're taken to a page with banner ads on it, so the companies donate more money the more their ads are viewed. It seems like a small act, but it really adds up. For example, visitors to The Hunger Site raised enough money to provide nearly 6.5 million pounds of food to feed the hungry in 2007. Only one click a day from your computer is counted, so set your favorite cause as your home page to remember to click every day.

Donate your frequent flier miles. Many of the major airlines, including Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United Airlines, allow frequent flier members to donate accrued miles to charity. Check with the airline to find out about minimum donation requirements and which charities participate in its program. If you don't already have a frequent flier account because you don't fly often, consider setting one up before you travel this holiday season and donate the miles when you get home. It's free to join, and you can do it online.

Buy extra groceries. On your next trip to the supermarket, pick up a couple of extra items to donate to your local food bank. Whether you have an extra $5, $10, or $25 to spend, a little goes a long way. For example, on average, $10 can buy about 20 pounds of flour, 12 pounds of rice, or about five pounds of peanut butter, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Be a kid again. Hundreds of communities nationwide are conducting Toys for Tots drives this holiday season. You simply buy a new toy and drop it off unwrapped at a collection location, and then the toys are delivered to needy children in your area. This is a good way to get kids involved - bring along your child, niece, or nephew to the toy store to help make a selection.

Give blood. According to the American Red Cross, 5 million people receive blood transfusions each year, yet the nation's blood supply is often a mere two days away from empty. You can search for blood drives in your neighborhood and set up an appointment to donate through the American Red Cross site www.givelife.org. You must be at least 17 years old, in good health, and weigh at least 110 pounds to donate. Check your eligibility.

Get a haircut. Have you been mulling a new look for the New Year? Cut off your long hair and send your shorn locks to organizations that will use it to make wigs for children who have lost their hair due to medical treatments. Locks of Love requires that donations measure at least 10 inches in length, and Wigs for Kids requires 12 inches.

Do your homework

However you choose to give, it's important to check out the charity first to make sure it is legitimate and that your money, goods, or services will be used to their fullest potential. You can research an organization online through the American Institute of Philanthropy, Better Business Bureau, Charity Navigator, or GuideStar.

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