Fake charities can be a Grinch at holidays

Posted Dec. 19, 2010, at 11:27 p.m.

Charitable giving tends to peak at this time of year. The spirit of the holiday season seems to pervade, even during difficult economic times. That’s good, because many charitable organizations depend on these gifts to keep operating.

Disreputable people take advantage of the generosity of honest donors in a variety of ways. Some set up fake websites designed to look like those of legitimate charities. Others use the telephone to seek quick cash for themselves, while pretending to represent some worthy cause.

We also may do less good than we had hoped when a large chunk of our donations goes to cover fundraising expenses. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that only 46 percent of all charitable donations went to the charities soliciting the funds; much of the rest went to administrative costs, including professional fundrais-ers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with paying people to raise money for a good cause; many large charities depend on well-organized efforts to raise the large sums they need to operate. However, when administrative costs outstrip the funds they deliver to the charities, it’s time to take a close look at what’s happening.

The state of Maine looks hard at the people who do the collecting, requiring most of them to be licensed (excepted are religious organizations and some smaller nonprofits). If a solicitor phones you or comes to your door, that person is required to tell you the name and address of the soliciting organization before asking for money. Professional fundraisers are required to tell you the name and address of the professional fundraising counsel, professional solicitor or commercial co-venture if that’s the case.

Our suggestions on charitable giving:

ä Give locally. You often may see your dollars being put to good use in your community.

ä Give directly. Drop off your check or take part in a fundraising activity sponsored by your favorite cause. If you’re making a sizeable donation, you may want to meet directly with the fundraising coordinator.

ä Give only to nonprofit organizations with the 501(C)3 designation; that means you can claim the donation as a tax deduction.

ä Keep records of all donations for tax purposes. For donations over $250, you will need a letter from the receiving organization acknowledging the gift. Gifts of under $250 need only a canceled check, credit card charge or other “reliable” evidence showing the date, amount and recipient’s name.

ä Don’t give cash.

ä Don’t pledge a gift to an unsolicited phone caller. Get written information (which solicitors are required to send you) before making your decision. Don’t give in to a phone solicitor’s pressure for a quick donation to a “runner” who will pick up your check. A bona fide charity will appreciate your gift just as much after you have had time to do your research.

Our best advice might be to make a list of charities to which you want to donate, and stick to that list.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, go to http://necontact.wordpress.com, or e-mail at contacexdir@live.com.

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