Maximize the Benefit of your Donations to Charity: Helping Food Banks Feed the Most

Around this time of year, I start collecting all of our receipts for donations to registered charities. Now that many are e-receipts it takes a bit of checking to make sure that they are all present and accounted for. (pun intended) The first thing I noticed was that blessedly there were fewer major natural disasters in underfunded countries in 2012. The tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods that resulted in large receipts from international aid groups were mercifully absent. The next thing that crossed my mind was whether we had been maximizing the benefit to ourselves and those we are trying to help through optimally donating.

The following articles describe some ideas that we have come up with to make our limited time and dollars do the most. I’d be really interested in hearing what others have thought up. There’s lots of room for improvement!

Giving $$ to the Food Bank Feeds More Visitors than Giving Retail Groceries

So far this school year, we’ve been asked to donate to 3 food drives. This is a worthy idea, of course. Anyone’s luck can take a turn for the worse and a food bank can help ease them past the crisis. Then, once their situation has improved, they can be the ones giving instead of receiving.

Food Bank Donations on NaturalCrooksDotComI do question, though, the logic of giving groceries purchased at regular retail prices. I am a savvy grocery hunter and I know the cycles of sales for most items. And I do pick up healthy staples on sale knowing full well I’ll get pressured into donating them to a school, business or worship food drive. But part of me knows it’s not the way to maximize the benefit from my donation dollars.

If I give the food bank a cheque, instead, they can use it to buy what they most need.
Sometimes what’s donated isn’t actually what’s needed.

Frankly, I get annoyed with some grocery stores near me. They sell pre-packed bags to donate to the food bank for a reasonable price. But what they pack in the bags is upsetting. One recent one had a box of 6 packets of store brand instant oatmeal and a box of store brand snack crackers.

Grocers get real! The clients at food banks are hungry. They are only allowed a small amount per month from the food bank, so they want and need to maximize the nutrition.
For the same price as that 6 pack of sweetened oatmeal, the store could have packed a name brand 1 kg (2.2 lbs) bag of quick oats. A normal sized serving for an adult is 30g. So it would make 33 servings of oatmeal. Versus 6! And instead of the snack crackers the store could have put in a small bag of sugar to sweeten the oatmeal (and maybe get used for other things).If you’ve never eaten oatmeal, yes, quick oats are just as fast and easy to cook as instant oatmeal. You just add hot water, or if you have a microwave, you just nuke it in a bowl or mug.

Sometimes, too, what’s donated does not include the really expensive, but needed, items like baby formula and diapers. (Please don’t say babies can all breast feed. They can’t if their mothers are ill, having chemo, hospitalized or have had mastectomies.) The food bank can buy these items with a cash donation.

The food bank can also usually buy items at wholesale, not retail prices. In fact, some food banks are even able to buy at prices below wholesale since the suppliers know that the food is not being used to compete against retail markets. People shopping at the food bank aren’t shopping anywhere else, unfortunately.

And there’s a third benefit to donating in cash. If you donate more than about $12, most food banks can issue you a receipt for your income taxes. If you donate generously throughout the year, like we do and I hope you do, then your donation generates a tax credit for 38.8% of the donation. Even if you can only donate a very small amount of money to charity, say $200 a year, in Ontario, that would get you a $40 tax credit. (This is the combined federal and provincial credit.)

You can check an estimate of the credit for your province and your annual charitable donations on the Canada Revenue Agency site at

The tax credit is not just nice to have. It means I can actually donate 38% more to the food bank without having to pay anything more. That’s 38% more money and therefore more food that the food bank can use to help out people who need it than if I had just spent the original amount at the retail store and given the food itself to the food bank.

The Merit of Giving Food You Can Touch and See

I do realize that there are times when giving food in kind is beneficial for other reasons.
For example, each year our place of worship puts together hampers for families who are having a tough time financially. (For those who care, yes, many of the families receiving those hampers do not have any faith or have a significantly different faith than we do.)

Our family sponsors a hamper for one other family. We buy everything that goes in it. My children watch me shop for the hamper. They see the pile build and they see how many reusable bags it fills when it’s time to give it. And they get a sense of just how much food costs and how little food you get for your money.

We also talk about why we’re giving more than the minimum requested. We talk about our holiday meal and the special things we eat. Then we add some of those treats to the hamper.

We talk about how we use leftovers after the holiday. And we add the things needed to use those leftovers: a 10 kg (22 lb) bag of rice, a five kilo (10lb) bag of onions, a 2.5 kg (5 lb) bag of carrots, cans of lentils and beans, a few packs of herbs and spices. Can you see the soup simmering?

And we add more than the minimum of household supplies. Bulk packs of tissue boxes are visually more impressive to my children than zeroes on a cheque. They know how often kids get colds. The mountain of toilet paper may embarrass them a bit, but since their school often runs out, they know how helpful that is, too.

So sometimes we sub-optimize our contribution in one way (quantity) but we maximize it in another (education.)

Continuing in a Charitable Mood
Future articles will continue to explore the theme of maximizing donations to charity. If you’re intrigued (or just like clicking things) please consider:

Optimize your Donations to Charity: Take Advantage of Taxes

Join In
Do you support a food bank? Or have you had to use one during a time of need? Or do you have other suggestions for optimizing the benefits of charitable contributions? Please share your experiences with a comment.

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