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Understand the Basic Principles of Wise Giving (phone, door to door, or mail)

Before you decide to give a penny (via phone, door-to-door, or by mail) to any charity, there are some important steps you should take to ensure that your giving will be the most beneficial. The Better Business bureau recommends the following steps in deciding to give to a charity (from Tips on Charitable Giving, 1986, Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc):

  1. Ask for the charity’s full name and address: Ask for identification from the solicitor. Do not be fooled by names that look impressive or that closely resemble the names of well-known organizations. Make sure that you want your money to go to this specific charity. One of my favorite charity websites is Charity Navigator at http://www.charitynavigator.org. This website can give you lots of information about various charities that file Form 990 with the IRS. Note, however, they do not include religious organizations listed as “church or convention or association of churches,” which are exempt from filing Form 990.
  2. Ask if the charity is licensed by state and local authorities: Registration, or licensing, is required by most states and many communities. If the charity is not licensed, it may not be a credible organization.
  3. Ask whether your contributions are tax deductible: Contributions made to tax-exempt organizations are not always tax deductible. The group must be a 501c3 organization for your contributions to be tax deductible. While it is not necessary to get a tax deduction for your giving, it does not hurt to get a deduction either.
  4. Check out the organization with the Better Business Bureau (BBB): Find out what percentage of the organization’s donations go to pay for programs, fundraising, and administration. The BBB recommends the following:

A. At least 50 percent of the charity’s total income should be spent on programs discussed in the organization’s literature.

B. No more than 35 percent of contributions should be spent on fundraising.

C. No more than half of the charity’s total income should be spent on administrative costs.

Two good sources of information on charities are the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org. The alliance rates over four hundred different charities. It is a great resource. Charity Navigator is an independent charity evaluator which can be found at www.charitynavigator.org. This institution that works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health of America's largest charities.

Realize that if you support causes that do not follow all three of the BBB’s guidelines, you may not be making the best use of your funds. Use wisdom in your giving.

  1. Watch out for statements such as “all proceeds will go to the charity”: This phrase can mean that the money left after expenses (such as the cost of written materials and fundraising efforts) will go to the charity. These expenses can have a big impact on the way your donations will be used, so check carefully. Make your giving go as far as possible and help as many people as possible. Moreover, make sure your giving is consistent with your personal goals.
  2. Don’t worry about unordered merchandise: If unordered items such as key rings, greeting cards, or pens are enclosed with an appeal letter, remember that you are under no obligation to pay for or return the merchandise.
  3. When you are asked to buy candy, magazines, cards, or tickets to a dinner or a show to benefit a charity, be sure to ask what the charity’s share will be: You cannot deduct the full amount paid for any such items because the IRS considers only the amount in excess of the fair-market value of the item to be a charitable contribution. For example, if you pay $10 for an $8 box of candy, you can only deduct $2 for tax purposes.

Once you decide to give, consider the following guidelines:

  1. Do not give cash: Always contribute by check, and make your check payable to the charity, not the individual collecting the donation. Give wisely.
  2. Keep records of your donations (receipts, canceled checks, and bank statements) so you can document your charitable giving at tax time: Although the value of your time as a volunteer is not deductible, out-of-pocket expenses (including transportation costs) directly related to your volunteer service are deductible at fourteen cents per mile in 2006.
  3. Don’t succumb to pressure to give money on the spot or allow a “runner” to pick up a contribution: The charity that needs your money today will welcome a donation just as much tomorrow. Often the tactic of pressuring an individual to give money on the spot is a way to get around postal regulations.
  4. Call your local BBB if a fundraiser uses pressure tactics like intimidation, threats, or repeated and harassing calls or visits: Such tactics violate the BBB’s recommended Standards for Charitable Solicitations.

Understanding the principles of wise giving is important to making your donations be as effective as possible. But what about other forms of solicitations, including mail, telephone calls, and door to door solicitations?


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