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Map out a plan for charitable giving

This will be the last year, I swear. Starting in 2012, I will not cram most of my charitable giving into December, donations haphazardly made based on the solicitations I get in the mail, charities my friends mention on Facebook, or giving patterns of the past. I vow to craft a thoughtful 2012 giving plan.

I figured there were lots of year-end procrastinators who drain bank accounts with a combination of holiday spending and charitable giving. But data from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University show only about one-quarter of charitable giving by individuals takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

But no matter when your money leaves your wallet, chances are your giving plan could use a tune-up. Robyn Schein, who helps people craft giving plans at the Minneapolis Foundation, said most people are reactive, not proactive in their giving.

Imagine an upside-down pyramid. On the top are obligatory gifts, the candy and poinsettias you buy from your co-workers' fundraising kids and the $20 you slip to your neighbor for the cure-cancer walkathon.

The next layer of the pyramid is made up of social, event-driven gifts -- the 5k you ran to support cancer research and the silent auction for your niece's school. "Those are really the easy things to do," Schein said.

Now you've reached the tip of the pyramid. Your wallet is almost drained. "It comes to the end of the year and you realize all you've done is given to the causes and passions of somebody else and not your own," said Schein, whose goal is to turn donors' giving pyramids right-side up.

To begin, she recommends identifying your three core values in life. The idea is to try to align your philanthropy to those values and causes that matter most to you.

Rebecca Lechner, 33, says she supports organizations with which she has a personal connection. For example, she donates annually to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance because her mother passed away from the disease.

Jon Bonkoski supports organizations that have a clear mission and that don't spend too much on administrative and fundraising costs. "That tends to turn me off," Bonkoski, 30, of Fridley, Minn., said.

He's used CharityNavigator.org to research groups he's thinking about funding. St. Paul, Minn.-based Charities Review Council evaluates organizations based on 27 standards and has numerous evaluation tools at SmartGivers.org.

Next comes a look at how much you can afford to give.

With my haphazard giving technique, I've never calculated what percentage of my income I give away each year. On average, U.S. households give an estimated 2 percent of their after tax income, according to Giving USA's 2011 report. It's a level that's held steady for four decades, while demand for nonprofit services continues to grow.

Once I determine the amount we can afford to donate each year, it's time to allocate that cash to those different levels of the giving pyramid. For example, if we give $1,000 away each year, the bulk of that cash should be set aside for those strategic, proactive gifts, leaving maybe $100 or $150 for cookie drives and the like.

And I'm not going to wait, lumping all of my giving into December, which strains my pocketbook. It's a bad habit I've gotten into because I want to receive a tax deduction for my donations, a perk for those who itemize their income tax returns.

To help procrastinators like me and smooth out their own income streams, many organizations are promoting the idea of sustaining memberships -- small, monthly donations automatically charged or withdrawn from a donor's bank account.

Bonkoski is a fan of this method. "You tend not to notice the small bite from the bank account," he said. "However, if there is an organization that requests money at the end of the year, I may give a one-time donation in December -- almost like an impulse buy."

In an era of tight budgets for both charities and individuals, nonprofits are devising ways to stretch your giving money further. One popular idea is matching money, where organizations or individuals put up a donation equal to your own.

Schein says it's important to remember that charities need more than just money.

In a recent fundraising study conducted by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative nearly two-thirds of nonprofits surveyed said they're looking for volunteers, who are leaned on more and more as budgets shrink or stagnate and demand for services grows. Providing skills such as writing, accounting or marketing is invaluable, especially to small groups.