Movies, music, and advertisements can give us a false impression of the holidays. Manhattan philanthropist Jean Shafiroff warns against buying into the sugarplum fairy hype. "You have to manage your expectations," says Shafiroff. "If you're a person of privilege, be grateful for what you have, even if it doesn't match the fantasy. A lot of people are lonely and in great need around the holidays. Be compassionate and give what you can."
Shafiroff has made her mark as a volunteer fundraiser and leader in the charity sphere. She came to philanthropy after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from Columbia University, working in a hospital and finance on Wall Street, and raising two daughters. With an MBA in Finance, Shafiroff has chaired countless galas, such as ones for Southampton Hospital, American Heart Association, United Negro College Fund, NYC Mission Society, New York Women's Foundation, French Heritage Society, Southampton Animal Shelter, American Cancer Society, Couture Council of the Museum of F.I.T., and other respected causes. One of her chief accomplishments includes fundraising $5.4 million for Southampton Hospital, in addition to giving generously to the institution. Shafiroff has been honored by the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, the Surgeons of Hope, Dominican Women's Development Center, Southampton Animal Shelter, and various other organizations. The list goes on and on. What drives her need to serve? A sense of purpose coupled with passion.
Identifying Your Causes
Everyone of financial means should donate money to charities. Shafiroff firmly believes that all privileged people have that obligation. She gives her time, knowledge, and money. Since she often hosts charity events at her home, she believes in giving her home, too. She explains that your "mere presence at an event is not enough." Shafiroff thinks that anyone with financial assets should donate to important causes. Right now, she hopes that the people of our nation will come together to aid California as the state has battled major fires.
"This is very important and can be done through the American Red Cross and the Humane Society, just to name a few organizations," she says. "When you donate, you can specify that your gift should go to California relief efforts."
In other words, if you can give, you must give. Shafiroff points to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quote "Everyone can be great because everyone can serve."
"You have to look deep inside yourself and ask if you're doing enough to help better society," says Shafiroff. She is particularly concerned about championing women's rights, working with underserved populations, promoting quality healthcare, giving animals a place of dignity in society. She chose these causes and associated organizations based upon her upbringing and personal values, not because of popularity. She also sees these as areas where there is great need.
"It's ideal to have a meaningful connection to your charities, but what matters most is that you give," she says. Shafiroff explains that you are much more likely to advance a cause and make an impact if you are passionate and sincere about it, but that giving is what actually inspires change. "The value of society is woven into the very fabric of American life. It's not an exclusive club open to a very few. Gifts of all sizes are needed."
In fact, Shafiroff believes that the American value of philanthropy is a seed that should be planted early.
"Philanthropy is a lifelong commitment," she says. "Giving back to society should be an integral part of our lives. Parents must teach their children to give from an early age so that it becomes a healthy habit for them—almost an instinct. Parents can teach their children to become philanthropists by first teaching them to share and to be kind to others."
Shafiroff realizes that getting started in philanthropy can feel overwhelming at first. She urges beginners to take it step by step.
"It's a process," she says. "But there is great need in this world. It is crucial to be kind. When you give, you feel great. Giving is a very rewarding experience."
Selecting Your Holiday Season Charities
Once you have pinpointed your causes, it's time to do a little research in order to make an educated decision. In her book, Successful Philanthropy: How to Make a Life By What You Give, Shafiroff goes into detail about how to sift through the many non-profit organizations biding for your time and money. You can focus on one organization or on several in different capacities and degrees. However, your choices must be informed ones. You will enjoy learning about all of the various choices that exist. Learn about different charities related to the causes that interest you and study their track records using tools like Guild Star, Charity Navigator, and the Better Business Bureau. Note whom the charities serve, how they serve them, and where their finances lie.
"Pay attention to what the organization is spending, how they are spending it, and what they are paying staff," says Shafiroff.
Other words of advice: Read the organizations' mission statements carefully and ask yourself if they appear to live by their promises. But Shafiroff also advises you to read press about the organizations.
"Remember—what's on their website is what they have written about themselves," she says. "You need to see what others have written about them."
That means finding newspaper articles, blog posts, online reviews, and more. Almost every organization has an online presence beyond its official website.
"Some organizations are smaller and might not have had their chance in the spotlight yet," says Shafiroff. "It's fine if an organization hasn't gotten a lot of attention. You might discover a hidden gem."
As you delve deeper in your research, you will be astonished by all of the amazing work done by charities in New York City and beyond.
The Final Choice
Which charities make your short list for larger sums is ultimately up to you. Values and priorities are personal. After you have narrowed down your charities, consider where your dollars will have the most impact for people and animals in need.
Before donating a large sum, Shafiroff suggests delving deep into the charity's finances. Any 501c3 organization must make their financial information public. This information is often available in the charity's annual report, which you may be able to download from the organization's website. (Often annual reports exist as PDF documents.) If you cannot easily find the annual report on the organization's website, send the staff an email. They can email you the PDF or mail you a hard copy. Once you've seen the numbers, you can evaluate what kind of impact your dollars will have. Then you can decide which charity or charities will receive your donation and how large the amount should be.
"The biggest organizations with the most dollars coming in from major donors might not need your gift in the same way that smaller, more niche organizations might," says Shafiroff. "That doesn't mean you shouldn't donate to bigger organizations. You might simply adjust the amounts for organizations of different sizes and operating budgets. Think about where there is a great need. Do your part to fill that need."
The Bottom Line
"I mention in my book that selfishness does not bring happiness," she says. "Few of us will ever be remembered for the businesses we created or the vacations we took. Through the act of giving, we ultimately come closer to understanding the meaning of life."
Shafiroff wants to be clear: She wants people to have fun, but she also wants them to give back to society. Shafiroff herself is known for her stunning ball gowns and cocktail dresses, which she wears to fundraising events. While she believes dressing up helps elevates an occasion, she is careful to reign in her spending. "I buy my gowns and dresses on sale and wear them to multiple events," she says, adding that she hopes to donate her collection to a museum one day.
Shafiroff hopes that this holiday season you remember to look outside yourself. "All of us should strive to be kind not just to loved ones but to those who have so little. Make it a family activity to think about others, give to others, and just better society in general."