During the holiday season, giving sometimes can be as impulsive as buying. But how do you make sure your good intentions go to someone with good intentions?
The study of giving and volunteering in Maryland, commissioned by the Partners for Giving, found that more than 80 percent of those surveyed were troubled by such questions. Eighty-four percent said it was "difficult to know" if organizations are legitimate; 80 percent said they wanted more information; and 78 percent said they wonder how well charities are managed.
"I wish someone could tell me what is a legitimate organization," was the lament of 60 percent of those surveyed.
Maryland's secretary of state, who oversees charities, has set up a toll-free telephone number that enables would-be givers to find out if a charity is registered.
For those charities that are registered -- and almost all charities must be registered under state law -- the secretary of state can provide financial and program information. The office also will take reports of suspected violations of charitable law.
There are some exemptions to the registration law. Fraternal organizations don't have to register unless they are raising money for something other than their own needs. Some small charities may be exempt, said Alicia Moran of the secretary of state's office.
She adds this warning: "Registration doesn't mean endorsement. We're just a regulatory agency." In other words, even if a charity is registered, it's up to the would-be contributor to decide if it's worthy and the answer to that question is largely a personal one.
There also is the issue of the charity's administrative costs, as compared to the amount actually spent on services. While general guidelines recommend a charity spend no more than 35 to 40 percent on administration and fund-raising, according to some published reports, new, smaller charities may exceed that.
The secretary of state also passes along these tips about dealing with solicitations from an unfamiliar group:
* Ask questions and ask for identification. A solicitor should be able to tell you how much of the money is used for administrative costs and how much goes into programs. The solicitor also should be able to supply written information about the charity.
* Be suspicious of anyone who will accept only cash, or whose group has a misleading name, designed to confuse the group with a better-known, reputable charity. Also watch for telephone solicitations in which the solicitor offers to pick up the donation at your home -- immediately.
* Take notes. The name of the charity, the solicitor and other pertinent details may be helpful if you decide to turn the information over to the secretary of state.
The Charitable Giving Information Program can be called at 1-800-825-4510. Charities that want to register with the office should call the Charitable Division, 974-5534.