We Americans are a generous lot. Even in the "worst economic climate since the Great Depression," charitable giving exceeded $300 billion in 2008, according to the Giving USA Foundation. However, with unemployment at 10% and families only slowly recovering from the recession, overall giving is down in 2009. According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), more than half of all charities have experienced a downturn in financial contributions this year, compared to 2008. If you don't have spare cash to give your favorite nonprofit this holiday season, here are a few ways you could still support their work. (There are several things to consider when it comes to this type of charitable giving. Make sure you're well informed by reading Gifting Your Retirement Assets To Charity.)

  • Click
    Supporting your favorite charity can be as easy as the click of a button – a mouse or touchpad button, that is. Web-savvy charities have corporate sponsors that will make donations when users interact with their websites. Thanks the advancements in usability of websites, funders can now donate, apply to volunteer and support charities from the comfort of their own homes!
  • Vote
    Charities are getting creative with social media. Consider Chase Community Giving, the foundation of Chase Financial Services. Chase Community Giving is running a campaign through Facebook, in which individuals can choose which charities will receive a portion of the Foundation's $5 million giveaway. If you have a Facebook account, you can become a "fan" of Chase Community Giving and vote for your favorite charity to receive funds. Look for other online opportunities to vote for your favorite charity to receive funds.
  • Give Your Time
    Contact your favorite nonprofit to find out what volunteer needs they have, and work with your spouse or family to determine how you could provide much-needed unpaid assistance on a regular or periodic basis. If you have a particular skill (bookkeeping, graphic design, carpentry), mention that when you call or email.
  • Spread the Word
    While you're jotting off holiday cards, why not mention an organization dear to your heart and encourage donations? Use social media tools like Facebook or Twitter to alert your friends and followers about the nonprofit's work. If you have a personal blog, write periodic updates on the organization's work, provide links to its website, and offer readers the opportunity to download a badge they can post on their blog. Consider setting up an online gift registry or wish list through retail stores with items your favorite charity needs; invite friends, family members, co-workers and blog readers to purchase a gift off the list that can be directly mailed to the organization – all at no cost to you!
  • Give What You Already Have
    Many nonprofits are in regular need of in-kind donations to support the populations they serve. For example, food banks need nonperishable food items; animal shelters often need pet toys and cleaning supplies. Before you begin bagging up supplies, contact the charity you would like to support to find out what they truly need before you burden them. Multiply your efforts to do exponentially more good by letting friends, colleagues and neighbors know that you would be willing to collect items they would like to donate, as well.
  • Shop Smart
    If you don't have money to donate, you can still give charitably if you shop smart. By shopping on sites like Goodshop.com, you can select a charity or nonprofit organization to receive a percentage of your online purchase.
  • Make Future Provisions
    Plan ahead and ensure that your favorite nonprofit receives a portion of your estate after your death. There are numerous vehicles you can use to donate to your favorite charity in the future. For example you could:
    • Make a written provision in your will that a sum of money, financial asset (stocks or bonds) or real property (car, parcel of land) be given to your selected charity.
    • Establish a charitable remainder trust (CRT), through which you can invest assets tax-free both for yourself and a charity of your choice. The CRT – either an annuity or a unitrust – will provide you with income for a set amount of time, and the assets will be assigned to your selected nonprofit afterward.
    • Set up a charitable lead trust, which allows you to have either a set dollar amount or fixed percentage of the trust's invested assets assigned to your selected charity; after your death, your heirs will receive the asset, possibly free from estate taxes

Take some time this holiday season to figure out how you and your family could use one of these creative ways to benefit charities, without spending a dime. (Generosity may be its own reward, but some charitable giving also provides personal tax benefits. Find out more in Deducting Your Donations.)

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