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Charitable Contributions: How To Give Wisely

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Since charities ask for larger and more frequent donations from the public these days, soliciting by mail, telephone, television, and radio, for example, they should be checked out before you donate money or time. Here are some tips on how to maximize your charity dollar and avoid scams.

Table of Contents

Here are some basic, common-sense suggestions for avoiding rip-offs in making charitable contributions:

  • Do not contribute cash. All contributions should be in the form of a check or money order made out to the charity never to the individual soliciting the donation.
  • Do not be misled by a charity that resembles or mimics the name of a well-known organization–all charities should be checked out.
  • Ignore pressure to donate immediately. Wait until you are sure that the charity is legitimate and deserving of a donation.
  • When appropriate, ask for written descriptions of the charity’s programs and/or finances, especially if the intended contribution is substantial.
  • If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of a charity, check it out with the local charity registration office (usually a division of the state attorney’s general office) and with the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: FRAUDULENT CHARITIES: How To Protect Yourself.

You should, of course, keep receipts, canceled checks and bank statements so you will have records of your charitable giving at tax time.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: ADVANCED CHARITY TECHNIQUES: Maximizing Your Deductions.

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Giving Your Time

Volunteering your time can be personally rewarding, but it is important to consider the following factors before committing yourself:

  • Make sure you are familiar with the charity’s activities. Ask for written information about the charity’s programs and finances.
  • Be aware that volunteer work may require special training and the devotion of a scheduled number of hours each week to the charity.
  • If you are considering assisting with door-to-door fund-raising, be sure to find out whether the charity has financial checks and balances in place to help ensure control over collected funds.

Although the value of your time as a volunteer is not deductible, out-of-pocket expenses (including transportation costs) are generally deductible.

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Mail Solicitations

Many charities use direct mail to raise funds. While the overwhelming majority of these appeals are accurate and truthful, be aware of the following:

  • The mailing piece should clearly identify the charity and describe its programs in specifics. If a fund-raising appeal brings tears to your eyes but tells you nothing about the charity’s functions, investigate it carefully before responding.
  • It is against the law to demand payment for unsolicited merchandise-e.g., address labels, stamps, bumper stickers, greeting cards, calendars, and pens. If such items are sent to you with an appeal letter, you are under no obligation to pay for or return them.
  • Appeals that include sweepstakes promotions should disclose that you do not have to contribute to be eligible for the prizes offered. To require a contribution would make the sweepstakes illegal as a lottery operated by mail.
  • Appeals that include surveys should not imply that you are obligated to return the survey.
  • Beware of fund-raising appeals that are disguised as bills or invoices. It is illegal to mail a bill, invoice or statement of account that is, in fact, an appeal for funds unless it has a clear and noticeable disclaimer stating that it is an appeal and that you are under no obligation to pay unless you accept the offer.

Deceptive-invoice appeals are most often aimed at businesses, not individuals. If you receive one of these, contact your local Better Business Bureau.

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Public Education Solicitations

If you respond to mail appeals, you should be aware that certain charities consider this to be a significant part of their educational budgets. In a recent survey, half of 150 well-known national charities included their direct mail and other fund-raising appeals in their public education programs. This practice makes fund-raising drives look like a smaller part of a charity’s expenses than they are. These 75 charities allocated $160 million of their direct mail and other appeal costs to public education programs.

A charity whose purpose is to combat cruelty to animals uses direct mail to raise funds. The cost of a nationwide direct mail campaign is $1 million much more than the $200,000 the charity has budgeted for its program of research grants. This embarrassingly high allotment for fund-raising costs can be significantly reduced if the direct mail pieces include some information about cruelty to animals. Since the information is considered educational, the charity calls it a program expense and allots half the cost of the mailing to public education, thus reducing fund-raising expenses from $1 million to only $500,000, and bumping up program spending from $200,000 to $700,000.

The line between pure fund-raising and genuine public education activities is not always clear. However, if the charity is confident that the fund-raising appeal truly serves its educational purposes, it should be willing to disclose this fact in the appeal. This disclosure allows donors to make an informed decision about whether to support the activity.

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Telephone, Door-To-Door, And Street Solicitations

When you are approached for a contribution of time or money, ask questions – and do not give until you are satisfied with the answers. Charities with nothing to hide will encourage your interest. Be wary of any reluctance to answer reasonable questions.

  • Ask for the charity’s full name and address. Demand identification from the solicitor.
  • Ask if the contribution is tax-deductible.
  • Ask if the charity is licensed by state and local authorities. Registration or licensing is required by most states and some local governments.

Contributions to tax-exempt organizations are not always tax-deductible.

Registration, by itself, does not mean that the state or local government endorses the charity.

  • Do not give in to pressure to make an immediate donation or allow a runner to pick up a contribution.
  • Statements such as “all proceeds will go to charity” may mean money left after expenses, such as the cost of fund-raising efforts, will go to the charity. These expenses can be big ones, so check carefully.
  • When asked to buy candy, magazines, or tickets to benefit a charity, be sure to ask what the charity’s share will be. Sometimes the organization will receive less than 20 percent of the amount you pay.
  • If a fund raiser uses pressure tactics- intimidation, threats, or repeated and harassing calls or visits-call your local Better Business Bureau to report the actions.

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Sweepstakes Appeals

Sweepstakes mailings, used by businesses for many years to promote their products, have recently become popular with charities. Here are some points to consider when reviewing a sweepstakes appeal.

  • The sweepstakes mailing should clearly disclose that no contribution is necessary to participate.
  • If the charity sweepstakes promotion says you are a pre-selected winner, you will usually receive a prize only if you respond to the sweepstakes. Most “pre-selected winners” receive just pennies per person.
  • Both donor and non-donor sweepstakes participants must have an equal chance of winning a prize.

For a national campaign, the probability of winning the big prize may be quite low. Some campaigns involve mailings of a half-million to ten million or more letters.

If you are considering a donation, check out the appeal as you would any other request for funds. Does it clearly specify the programs your gift would be supporting? Do not hesitate to ask for more information on the charity’s finances and activities.

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Charity Thrift Stores

Since all charity thrift stores do not necessarily operate the same way, it is important to find out if the charity is benefiting from thrift sales. There are three major types of thrift store operations:

  • Conduit-type shops run by volunteer church and civic groups. These thrift stores generally distribute most of their proceeds to various charitable organizations, often community-based.
  • Thrift operations are represented by service organizations such as The Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries. Here, the thrift stores are operated as part of their program activities through the goal of “rehabilitation through employment.”
  • Charities that collect and sell used merchandise to raise funds for their own use. This arrangement is popular for a number of veterans organizations and other charities. Such arrangements generally work one of two ways: (1) the charity owns and operates the store or (2) more commonly, variously charities solicit and collect used items, which are then sold to independently managed stores for an agreed-upon amount.

The fair market value of goods donated to a thrift store is deductible as a charitable donation, as long as the store is operated by a charity. To determine the fair market value, visit a thrift store and check the going rate for comparable items. If you are donating directly to a for-profit thrift store or if your merchandise is sold on a consignment basis whereby you get a percentage of the sale, the thrift contribution is not deductible.

Remember to ask for a receipt that is properly authorized by the charity. It is up to the donor to set a value on the donated item.

If you plan to donate a large or unusual item, check with the charity first to determine if it is acceptable.

If you are approached to donate goods for thrift purposes, ask how the charity will benefit financially. If the goods will be sold by the charity to a third party such as an independently managed thrift store, then ask what the charity’s share will be.

Sometimes the charity receives a small percentage, e.g., 5 to 20 percent of the gross or a flat fee per bag of goods collected.

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Fund-Raising Dinners, Variety Shows, And Other Events

Dinners, luncheons, galas, tournaments, circuses, and other events are often put on by charities to raise funds. Here are some points to consider before deciding to participate in such events.

  • Check out the charity. The fact that you are receiving a meal or theater tickets should not justify less scrutiny.
  • Your purchase of tickets to such events is generally not fully deductible. Only the portion of your gift above the fair market value of the benefit received (i.e., the meal, show, etc.) is deductible as a charitable donation. This rule holds true even if you decide to give your tickets away for someone else to use.

If you decide not to use the tickets, give them back to the charity. In order to be able to deduct the full amount paid, you must either refuse to accept the tickets or return them to the charitable organization. In this way, you will not have received value for your payment.

Make donations by check or money order out to the full name of the charity and not to the sponsoring show company or to an individual who may be collecting donations in person.

  • Watch out for statements such as “all proceeds will go to the charity.” This can mean the amount after expenses have been taken out, such as the cost of the production, the fees for the fund-raising company hired to conduct the event, and other related expenses. These expenses can make a big difference and sometimes result in the charity receiving 20 percent or less of the price paid.

Ask the charity what anticipated portion of the purchase price will benefit the organization.

  • Solicitors for some fund-raising events such as circuses, variety shows, and ice skating shows may suggest that if you are not interested in attending the event you can purchase tickets that will be given to handicapped or underprivileged children. If such statements are made, ask the solicitor how many children will attend the event, how they will be chosen, how many tickets have been already distributed to these children, and if transportation to the event will be provided for them.

It has happened that the number of children eligible to receive free tickets has been limited or transportation has not been arranged. So, in effect, free tickets given to the few needy children who attend the event are paid for many times over by businesses and individuals who purchase tickets.

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Charity-Affinity Credit Cards

You may receive an offer to apply for an affinity credit card bearing the name and logo of a particular charity. Sometimes offered exclusively to an organization’s donors or members, these cards are issued by banks and credit card companies under agreements worked out with individual charities. These cards are just like other credit cards, but the specified charity gets some kind of financial benefit.

All affinity credit cards are not created equal. Offers vary in terms of how the charity benefits as well as the terms of the credit agreement with consumers. So check the terms carefully!

Consider the specific terms as you would any credit card offer: the amount of the interest rate/finance charges, the amount of the annual fee, if any, the amount of late fees and over-the-limit fees, if any, and the length of the grace period, or amount of time after which finance charges begin to accrue on any unpaid balance.

The charity usually receives a benefit in one or more of the following ways:

  • The charity receives a certain percentage of each purchase or a specified amount every time the consumer makes a purchase with the card,
  • The charity receives a certain dollar amount every time a new customer signs up for a card, or
  • The charity receives a portion of the annual renewal fee for the card.

Make sure the promotional literature states exactly how the charity benefits. For example, one affinity card offer declared that a specified national charity would receive half of one percent of all transactions made with the card (that works out to 5 cents for every $10 worth of purchases). If the financial benefit for the charity is not spelled out, then ask.

Contributions made by a bank and/or credit card company through the use of an affinity credit card are not deductible to consumers as charitable donations for federal income tax purposes.

Remember also to consider your interest in the charity and not to hesitate to seek out more information on the charity’s programs and finances.

If saving money is your bottom line, make a direct donation to the charity and seek a credit card with the best terms and lowest interest rates, regardless of affinity.

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Charity/Business Marketing

The following points should be kept in mind when considering promotions that partner charities and businesses:

  1. Charity/business marketing campaigns should clearly disclose the actual or estimated portion of the purchase price that will benefit the specified cause. Without such information, you cannot know how much of your purchase will aid a charity participating in such a campaign.
  2. Read the disclosure carefully. Some charity/business marketing campaigns have an expiration period (for example, ten cents goes to the charity for all purchases made until October 31.) If there is no disclosure, be aware that the amount that goes to the charity is usually between one and ten percent of the retail price.
  3. In schemes during the Gulf War, businesses made no arrangements with the named charity and no contributions were given. Various items and services were sold with the false promise that a donation would be made to the USO or other organizations helping members of the armed services or their families. Similar advertising abuses commonly occur in the wake of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters.
  4. Some advertisements falsely imply the existence of a direct connection between the consumers’ purchase and the charity when, in fact, the charity was guaranteed a “flat” contribution regardless of the level of the resulting purchases.

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Disaster Appeals

The tragedy of a flood, massive fire, hurricane, earthquake, or another disaster always triggers an outpouring of public support and concern. During such crises, watch out for fraudulent appeals by some who see disasters as an opportunity to take advantage of American concern and generosity.

Examine your options instead of giving to the first charity from which you receive an appeal. There will be a variety of relief efforts responding to the diverse needs of disaster victims. Be wary of appeals that are long on emotion and short on what the charity will do to address the specific disaster.

Ask how much of your gift will be used for the crisis and how much will go towards other programs and to administrative and fund-raising costs. And find out what the charity intends to do with any excess contributions remaining after the crisis has ended.

Check with organizations before donating goods for overseas disaster relief. Most groups involved in overseas relief will not accept donated goods since purchasing goods overseas is often less expensive and more efficient. If a charity accepts donated items, ask about their arrangements for shipping and distribution.

Some charities change their program focus during a crisis in order to respond to the changing needs of disaster victims. Do not assume the charity will carry out the same activities throughout a crisis situation.

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Police And Firefighter Appeals

In reviewing such appeals, potential donors should be aware of the following points.

  • Many different types of police and firefighter organizations exist. Some are charities that operate educational or youth programs. Others are labor organizations, fraternities, or benevolent associations that provide benefits to members.
  • Your gift may not be deductible. Police and firefighter organizations can be tax exempt under different sections of the Internal Revenue Code. Only some of them are eligible to receive deductible charitable donations.
  • Do not make assumptions based on the name alone. The words “police” and “firefighter” in the organization’s name do not necessarily mean that representatives from your local and/or state police or fire departments are members. In fact, the organization may not have any police or firefighter members.
  • Ask about any affiliations the group might have with other organizations. Some groups operate as a lodge or chapter of a larger organization. Others are independent associations of local, state, and/or federal law enforcement officers.
  • Do not believe promises that your donation will “give you special treatment” from your police or firefighters. If such suggestions of threats are used, contact your state attorney general’s office and your Better Business Bureau.
  • Ask how your contribution will be used and what programs and activities it will support. Do not hesitate to ask for written materials on the police or firefighter group’s programs and finances.
  • Groups offering legitimate help to your police, firefighters, and community will welcome your questions and encourage your interest.

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Child Sponsorship Groups

Not all sponsorship programs are alike. Sponsored donations usually benefit a project for an entire community (for example, medical care, education, food) and not the sponsored child exclusively. Some groups believe this is the most effective way to make significant and lasting changes in a child’s living conditions. Other organizations do give a certain amount of the contribution directly to the sponsored child. Before deciding to participate in a sponsorship program, you may want to consider the following:

  • Do you know how children are assisted (i.e., through a community development project operated by the charity or through an affiliated project that the group funds)?
  • Can you commit at least several years to a program in the form of financial assistance and letter-writing?
  • The child will not be your adopted child in any legal sense, and you will not be able to make any demands on him or her.
  • Do you agree with the overall philosophy of the organization (e.g., any religious focus a program might have)?

Contact other child sponsors to get a sense of their overall satisfaction with the organization.

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A Charity’s National Office and Its Affiliates

While some organizations are a single entity under one name, others may be a network of local affiliates or chapters. If you give to a local chapter or affiliate, do not assume your donation will be spent locally. Nor should you assume that a chapter’s operations are fully controlled by the national office.

Many different types of relationships can exist between a charity’s national office and its chapters. Here are three possible relationships chapters:

  1. The national office performs certain functions, such as developing educational or fund-raising materials but does not supervise affiliates. In this case, the local chapters are incorporated separately from the national office and each applies for its own tax-exempt status from the IRS. Each local chapter’s programs and fund-raising is under the control of the chapter’s local board of directors. To support the national office, the local affiliates purchase materials produced by it or send it a small percentage of their locally collected funds.
  2. The organization’s national office and affiliates function as one centralized unit under the control of a national board of directors. All income and expenses are channeled through the national office. In this case, the chapters are not separate legal entities and have only limited authority, as stated in their charter agreements with the national office.
  3. Most national/chapter relationships fall somewhere between the two extremes in the preceding two paragraphs. In such a case, both the national office and the local affiliates share some level of authority. Local chapters may or may not be separately incorporated, but all have their own governing boards, some of which share control with the national office. The charity may have statewide affiliates that perform functions at the state level. With this structure, there is usually a fund sharing or dues formula between the local affiliates and the national office.

The bottom line for you is that, depending on the organization’s structure, the local affiliate may carry out different activities from those of the national office. It is important to inquire about this difference. In addition, donors may want to identify how much of a local affiliate’s contributions are spent on local programs.

When considering a donation to a local chapter, it is wise to check out the chapter separately.

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Government and Non-Profit Agencies

  • Most state governments regulate charitable organizations. To obtain information on these regulations, which vary from state to state, contact the appropriate government agency (usually a division of the Attorney General or the Secretary of State).
  • Contact the appropriate state government agency to verify a charity’s registration and to obtain financial information on a soliciting charity.
  • Contact your local Better Business Bureau to find out whether a complaint has been lodged against a charity.

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