In an economic recession, legitimate charitable organizations will need your dollars more than before. This makes it doubly important that you find out how your money will be spent before you open your checkbook for any of the solicitations that come to you this holiday season.
Americans are generous people. We are proud of our giving. But as our donations increase (we now give more than $125 billion a year), the number of abuses of public trust by poor management or outright fraud also increases.
Helen, like most of you, believes it is better to give than to receive. Although her salary is small, she sends $2 in response to every request for a charitable gift that arrives in her mail. She doesn't know that it is better not to give than to be duped. Helen's donations may do little more than pay for the cost of soliciting her. Yet, even if she sent larger amounts, in many cases little of it would help the causes that touch her emotions.
But how do you find out whether your charity meets widely accepted standards in its operations? It's easier than you might think. The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) can help you make informed decisions. Its Philanthropic Advisory Service will send you up to three reports on specific nonprofit organizations. Send a self-addressed business-size envelope (stamped with 50 cents postage) and indicate the reports you want to: Council of Better Business Bureaus, 4200 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22203.
For $2 CBBB will send you its guide to charitable giving, "Give But Give Wisely," providing current ratings. For $9.95 you can receive the Annual Charity Index which describes more than 200 national charities. The National Charities Information Bureau (NCIB), Dept. DB, 19 Union Square West, New York, N.Y. 10003 will send you its free "Wise Giving Guide," rating some 400 charitable organizations. The rating systems of the two organizations are not identical, so it's useful to have both.
There are hundreds of thousands of other organizations engaged in fund-raising. Check with your local Better Business Bureau for ones not listed by the national watchdogs. Or ask your state's attorney general; it may maintain a charity registration office in your community.
A sometimes overlooked source of information is the organization itself. Ask for written information about the charity's programs and finances, including a copy of its annual report, its budget, an audited financial statement and a list of directors.
Don't hesitate to ask questions. And "Don't give up until you're satisfied with the answers," advises the CBBB.
Be skeptical of newly formed organizations and those appealing for support of popular current issues such as the environment, relief for the homeless, animal rights and the like.
Both the CBBB and NCIB recommend that you not rely wholly on their rating systems. An organization may correct its deficiencies or may lose its rating in a short period of time. If a charity you favor has a low rating, you may want to ask the organization itself why it does not meet the standard.
Many of you volunteer your services as fund-raisers or directors of a charitable group. In either case, you should familiarize yourself with the operation. Some paid organization executives do not keep their volunteer staffs fully informed of the operations. If you are a prominent citizen or a celebrity, all the more reason to act with care.
Most people give to worthy causes because they want to help. But for others decisions of what and when to give are influenced by tax considerations. You will want to take a close look at the 1990 tax legislation. It changes the rules on deductions if you are in what Congress considers a high income bracket. Be aware also that when an organization says it is tax-exempt, that does not tell you whether a donation to it qualifies as a tax deduction.