In year-end rush to make donations to charity, some fall prey to unscrupulous solicitations

December 24, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Warm holiday feelings, a good economy and the allure of a tax deduction make this the season when many Marylanders write checks to charity.

But in their haste to do good, some donors are taken by the generic sob stories of organizations that do not measure up to standards set by government and private watchdogs.

With charity giving a $150 billion industry -- almost $3 billion of it generated in Maryland -- those who police the nonprofit organizations say it is important to choose wisely from among the dozens of appeals that come in the mail and by phone.

"Be careful of the emotion of the season, the knee-jerk reaction to a sad story," warned Daniel Borochoff, president of the Bethesda-based American Institute of Philanthropy, a nonprofit group that reviews the financial statements of 340 agencies and rates them in the quarterly Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report.

Thirty-eight percent of Marylanders claimed a charitable deduction on their 1995 taxes, the highest proportion in the nation, according to John L. White, spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

But about 40 percent of giving comes in the last six to eight weeks of the year, leading to what Borochoff called the "term paper syndrome."

"It's silly the way Americans go at it -- they take such little effort when it comes to giving," he said. "When someone asks you to give, you give. The charity may be the best advertiser, but not necessarily done the best work."

For example, the institute's latest newsletter chronicles this year's fund-raising mailing from Gospel Rescue Ministries, a Washington mission that appeals to potential donors on behalf of "Steve."

But when pressed by the institute for details about the homeless man's life, the man who signed the appeal letter, food manager Nate Jones, acknowledged "that he does not know Steve, but knows many people like him."

So does a Los Angeles mission, which transformed "Steve" into "Alex" in its nearly identical fund-raising letter.

Both missions use the same professional fund-raiser, which adjusts its standardized solicitation letter for each client, Borochoff said.

The Maryland secretary of state's office received 93 complaints last month, with eight leading to investigations of everything from people raising money without the knowledge of a charity to aggressive telemarketers, White said.

The office makes available on its Internet home page information on more than 3,800 registered charities, including the total income of the agency, the number of donations, fund-raising expenses and how much money goes to programs.

The secretary of state's office also has a toll-free number so that donors can check whether a charity is properly registered or register a complaint.

AIDS groups are having trouble raising money because people think the disease has been cured. In recent years, environmental groups as a whole haven't kept pace with inflation. International pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

"People are rushing to give to Princess Diana's memorial fund and they don't even know where it's going," Borochoff said.

Instead, he suggests, "be a contrarian" and give to deserving, but perhaps less glamorous, agencies.

White agrees.

"If in doubt, give locally," advised White. "Give to the organization you know, where you can see the results of your donations. You can always walk down the street and hand a donation to your local volunteer fire department."

Call 301-913-5200 to order the latest issue of The American Institute of Philanthropy Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report. The cost is $3 for postage and handling. The Maryland secretary of state's toll-free number is 1-800-825-4510. The Internet address is:

Advice on charities

Tips from the Maryland Secretary of State's office and the American Institute of Philanthropy:

Know your charity. Request written literature and a copy of the charity's latest annual report.

Find out where your dollars go. The institute recommends that at least 60 percent of your donation should go to programs, not overhead.

Do not respond to on-the-spot contributions. Legitimate charities not pressure you.

Do not be misled by a charity's familiar name. Some questionable charities use a name that closely resembles a household name. When you write a check, use the agency's full name.

Ask if a charity is registered with the state. But keep in mind registration does not imply government approval or endorsement.

Beware of charities offering gifts. It often raises the cost of fund raising and puts pressure on the potential donor. Pub Date: 12/24/97

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