Recently, I got a telephone call from a charity claiming to represent the "local police department" and asking for a holiday donation.
The caller prefaced his appeal by saying, "Aren't we fortunate to have police officers protecting us?"
Of course we are; who can argue with that?
But when I asked specific questions, such as the charity's name, and requested that written materials be sent to me, the caller was taken aback and repeated his original pitch for money.
I ended the call because a legitimate charity wouldn't have had a problem with full disclosure.
This is the time of year when consumers are likely to hear appeals from charities, especially with the recession having put millions of people out of work, leaving their families struggling.
Most organizations contacting you are on the up and up and have sincere intentions.
However, scammers also take advantage of the holiday atmosphere to rip off people with false appeals to their compassion and generosity.
So have a healthy skepticism while at the same time keeping a giving heart.
"It's not unusual during the holiday season to see a table set up outside a store, collecting donations," said Jeannette Kopko, senior vice president at the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Dallas Inc. "Just because the solicitors are outside a familiar store doesn't necessarily mean that they are operating with the store's permission, or that the store management has checked them out."
Before you donate, the BBB advises you to determine which charity would actually benefit and how to contact the charity if needed. Ask for written information.
"If there is any high pressure or reluctance to answer questions, that is a sign to be even more cautious," Kopko said. "If a charity needs your help today, they will still need it after you have a chance to find out more about them."
Here are other questions you should get answered before donating:
What's the nature of the charity's programs?
You want to donate to a cause that fits with your values, so make sure you understand the charity's mission.
You have the right to information about a charity because you're investing in it with your donation.
Is the organization eligible to receive tax-deductible donations?
If not, you won't be able to deduct your contribution from your taxes. Consumers may search for a list of qualified organizations on the Internal Revenue Service's Web site at www.irs.gov/app/pub-78/. If the charity isn't on that list, you should ask to see a copy of the IRS document that proves it's a qualified charity.
A key document to obtain is the charity's Form 990, which tax-exempt organizations file each year with the IRS. The form provides information on the organization's expenses and program accomplishments.
Religious institutions and certain church-affiliated charities aren't required to file a 990 form. Organizations that do file a 990 are required to provide a copy to anyone who requests it.
How will the charity use your donation?
This is a crucial question. Donors should expect that the bulk of their money go toward actual charitable activities, rather than to fundraising and administrative costs.
An organization's 990 form will show how much money is going to charitable activities vs. administrative expenses. You want more money to go toward actually helping people.
Generally, you'd like to see at least 75 percent of an organization's total expenses spent on program activities. But that's not an absolute number, said Michelle Monse, president of the Carl B. & Florence E. King Foundation in Dallas.
"I've never viewed a program expense ratio of 75 percent as an absolute threshold," she said. "I see it more as a rough guide and starting point for questions."
Each charity must decide how it will allocate its costs to management, programs or fundraising, Monse said.
"Different kinds of organizations typically have different program expense ratios," she said.
You should also factor in today's still-weak economy, which has slammed charities and eaten into their expense ratios.
The BBB Wise Giving Alliance, which evaluates more than 1,200 national charities, said it would cut organizations some slack because of the economy.
"BBB Wise Giving Alliance recognizes that donations are just not coming in as they have in the past, and this will negatively affect the financial ratios for many organizations that do fantastic work," said Art Taylor, president and chief executive of the alliance. "With the economy going sour, donors who fail to look beyond overhead ratios can unduly penalize good charities."
Special mention must be made about programs in which a portion of a consumer's purchase goes to a charity.
Kopko said such promotions should clearly disclose:
- The actual or anticipated portion of the purchase price that will benefit the charity. For example, it would say, "Five cents will be contributed to ABC charity for every XYZ company product sold."
Be wary of vague statements such as, "All proceeds go to charity," or "Your purchase will benefit a charity."
- How long the charitable campaign will last.
- Any maximum or guaranteed minimum contribution amount.
One way to make vetting a charity easier is to find out which organizations local foundations are donating to, said Lisa Philp, head of philanthropic services at the Private Bank at JPMorgan. That's because the foundations will have already done their due diligence on the charity.
One of those charities may be appropriate for your donation, she said.
"Rather than always being reactive, you can step back and think about what you care about and a way to get you to an organization that cares about your issues," Philp said. "You want to leverage existing resources out there and build upon them. Look for ways to give beyond the groups that approach you."
IN THE KNOW: TIPS ON CAUTIOUS GIVING
- If you're approached by an unfamiliar charity, check it out. Most states require charities to register and to file annual reports showing how they use donations.
- Be cautious about e-mails seeking charitable contributions. Many unsolicited e-mail messages are fraudulent.
- Beware of sound-alikes. Crooks try to fool people by using names that are similar to those of well-known charities.
- Ask how donations are used and how much of your money goes to fundraising and administrative costs.
- Be wary of requests to support police or firefighters. Contact your local police or fire department to find out if the request is legitimate.
- Be especially cautious when there are natural disasters. Fraudulent charities take advantage of those situations to trick people.
(c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.