Face the music…bite the bullet…take our medicine…we have a lot of phrases for it.

They amount to the same issue:  difficult choices involve options that are equally charming…or equally  ugly.

Have the surgery?…or tough it out and hope that (benign) tumor will not grow too fast?  Support your son’s fourth career move…or let him know you have some serious doubts?  Move to a smaller, more manageable condo…or keep the old place near the church and the friends you’ve made in the past 40 years?

Even a decision to be generous can be leave us on a teeter- totter.  Shall we send a check to support the scholarship find at the college where our daughter had a shaky start, but finally settled down?  Or would it make more sense to give that money to a homeless shelter, where we know it will have an immediate impact?

Here’s a different way to frame the situation.  Imagine you are holding a pair of playing cards.  Their face value is not important.  But 10 feet away from you on the carpet a pair of magic fish bowls wait for you to toss those cards.   You can trust your luck and toss both, hoping one of them lands in a bowl.  The bowls, by the way, are symbols of your challenging life choices.
Here’s the magic:  if you choose ONE of those cards, it does not matter which one, the fish bowls merge and triple in size, making it far more likely that your choice will pay off.

Guaranteed?  No.  The point of this exercise is to show how choosing improves our odds.  Putting our whole heart into anything tends to do that.  In other words, if you were 50 percent more sure your choice would pay off, would your choice be simpler?

Using the example of making a gift to charity, assume the decision was correct….which result would satisfy you most?

Finally, you can always test the waters; make a smaller gift first…see how it is received, what feedback you get, and how your modest gift is used.  In other words, don’t wait until the curtains are closing on the final act.  Pick a card, any card.

Mike Robinson is Senior Vice President of Planned Giving for United Way of Pierce County.  Please consult a qualified estate planner before making a gift in your will.

When her husband lost his battle with cancer, he left Janet enough to live comfortably.  He also left her with an unanswered question.

They had never considered what to do with those assets as she neared the end of her own life. Ten years later, when she heard a friend talk about “leaving a little something to charity in her will,” Janet kept her mouth shut.   Her friend was born and raised here, already had three or four non-profits she planned to honor with a gift.

She thought of the sob stories she saw on television, those charitable appeals that filled her mailbox every week.   They were worthy causes, but something was missing.  She could pick half a dozen prominent charities and it would probably work out.   But that didn’t sit right.   She wanted her gift to be heartfelt and sensible.  Whatever she gave, she wanted to have an effect close to home.

Rather than make a random choice, she sat down and faced three considerations.  First, she wondered, “What do I expect from the charity I choose?”   She didn’t care about having her name on a brass plaque, and tax shelter was not a serious motive.  If she made a gift in her estate, she wouldn‘t be around to enjoy it, anyhow.  She decided to make a gift that would help local kids in some way.

Her second question was “How do I know which local charity works on those things?”  She checked the Internet.  Sixteen agencies served kids within 30 miles of her home.  Some offered scholarships, some gave kids a safe place to play after school, and some helped kids with serious health problems.   She figured they were all providing worthwhile services.

Her final question cinched it.  She decided to ask for a copy of the annual report from five nonprofits.  She could do that online.   When they arrived in her mailbox, she learned who sat on those boards, their recent success stories, their annual budgets and expenses, and a lot about the programs they offered.
Now she had something she could use in making a gift that mattered.

Mike Robinson is Senior VP of Planned Giving for United Way of Pierce County. Please consult a qualified estate planner before making a gift in your will.

A nurse who listened to the last wishes of dying patients for more than a decade says five regrets came up most often.

• I wish I’d been true to myself.
• I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
• I wish I had the courage to express my feelings.
• I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
• I wish I’d let myself be happier.

Some of those regrets may surprise you, but think of your close friends.  Do you know someone who says she can’t speak her mind?  Has someone moved from across the country, leaving dear friends behind?  Have you stayed in a job you hated because you needed the income?

Last wishes have a mournful quality because it is too late to do much about them.  Even when we have time, speaking our minds is easier said than done.  Staying in touch with friends across a continent is not the same as dropping by for coffee when you live next door.

That hospice nurse might have heard different answers if she’d have asked, “What was the best thing that happened in your life?” As you read that, you may think instantly of children. If you are proud of them, that’s a powerful legacy.  Maybe you traveled the world, saw its many wonders.
Your happiest moments may not sound like much to others.   You might love your English garden, your career as a teacher, your grandma’s apple pie.  But if you have trouble answering, here’s some options.
Make a gift.  Send a check to an agency doing useful work in your community.  It might provide shelter to the homeless.  It might teach kids to read.  If you are not sure where to send your gift, pick an issue that concerns you.   Check the Internet.  Ask  friends.   Call an agency and ask for a tour.

Keep giving.  In 20 years, if someone asks what you regret most, you can say, “Not much. It’s been a great life.   And I tried to make sure others had one, too.”

Mike Robinson is Senior Vice President of Planned Giving for United Way of Pierce County.  Please consult a qualified estate planner before making a gift in your will.

focused philanthropy is a powerful tool for change
Focused philanthropy is a powerful tool for change

Some problems seem beyond our control:  world hunger, child abuse, epidemics.  When you think about such thorny issues, you may feel helpless.

But break those problems down into smaller pieces, and you may find a way to tackle them.  Once upon a time smallpox ravaged the earth. It caused blindness. It deformed children.  It killed 300–500 million people during the 20th century. Just 32 years ago, through a combination of inoculation and education, it was eradicated.

Likewise, only 70 years ago, polio was a terrifying epidemic.  57,000 cases were reported in the U.S. that year.  In truth, more individuals died that year from cancer and tuberculosis, but public concern made polio the most feared disease. Today it has been essentially eliminated.
What role did philanthropy play?  The national campaign against polio is a good example.  Rather than appeal to wealthy benefactors, the March of Dimes invited small donations from millions of individuals.  This raised hundreds of millions and led directly to the development of vaccines.  By 1961 only 161 cases were reported in the US.

The lesson is that focused philanthropy is a powerful tool for change.   Your gifts to annual campaigns for all sorts of good causes have made America the most charitable nation on earth.   But sending a check is not the only option. Most nonprofits also welcome bequests that help them sustain their work.
Our state is home to more than 80,000 registered charities.  The combination of volunteerism and philanthropy accounts for more than half the revenue they report. Close your eyes, name an alarming issue, and you are almost certainly going to find a local or national nonprofit dedicated to addressing it.
Here’s a quick test:   Worried about Puget Sound pollution? At least seven nonprofits work on it:  Alliance for Puget Sound Shoreline; People for Puget Sound; Forterra; the Nature Conservancy; Puget Sound Restoration Fund; Puget Soundkeeper Alliance; the Trust for Public Land.  This does not count dozens of regional watershed efforts like Puget Creek Restoration Society.

In short:  pick a concern that keeps you awake.  Check the Internet to see if there’s a nonprofit focused on it.  Since big problems like that don’t disappear overnight, find out if they could use a gift in your will to support that work over the next 20 years.

Mike Robinson is Senior Vice President for Planned Giving at United Way of Pierce County.Please consult a qualified estate planner before making a gift in your will.