12/29/08 — How to donate wisely this year

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How to donate wisely this year

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 29, 2008 1:46 PM

What happens to those dollars stuffed into the bell-ringers' red kettles, or the presents left at toy drive drop boxes?

Giving to a charitable cause is an act of trust for donors, who often do not get to see where their money goes or what it's used to accomplish, and some donors may be uncertain whether their gift is really going to provide for the people who need it most.

Organizations in Wayne County such as the Salvation Army, the Family YMCA, Wayne Uplift, the Boys and Girls Club and the Empty Stocking Fund use the money they collect to directly respond to a clear need in the community.

They determine that need in a variety of ways.

"We kind of just keep an eye on the families," said Sarah Pariso, director of operations at the Goldsboro Boys and Girls Club.

The club makes their list of individuals and families in need based on suggestions from workers who are able to see firsthand which of the club's members might need assistance during the holidays.

That list is also passed on to other agencies, like the YMCA, which uses the information in planning for events such as the Y's Men.

The Empty Stocking Fund develops a recipient list in much the same way, based on school teachers' observations and recommendations that are followed up by a form parents must fill out and return.

To make sure donors' money is used wisely and to spread the maximum amount of Christmas cheer, the Empty Stocking Fund list is compared to the Salvation Army's list so that no one is duplicated.

This year, the Empty Stocking Fund provided toys and clothes for 642 children, and the Salvation Army gave presents to more than 900 others.

The evidence of need is often all too clear.

"A lot of the people we help are in domestic violence situations," said Deborah Carter, court advocate for Wayne Uplift.

The people on Wayne Uplift's list are going through major life changes and many are involved in domestic violence court cases, she said.

The U.S. Marine Corps Reserve's Toys for Tots and various agencies' Dove or Angel Trees are also popular ways of giving, and allow donors to skate around the concerns inherent with donating money by instead taking in presents for recipients.

Toys for Tots coordinators work with local community agencies and organizations to make a list of needy kids, while individual agencies that run Angel or Dove Trees often have their own criteria for selecting recipients.

Some agencies are far less transparent about their practices, and unscrupulous scammers always lurk under the boughs of holly.

Concerned citizens who want to shop around before donating to a cause can check with the Better Business Bureau to see a report on different charities' practices. The BBB has an automated phone service and Web site that allows consumers to file a complaint or use a charity's phone number or Web site address to see prior consumer complaints about a business or charitable organization.

Here are five ways Beverly Baskin, president of eastern North Carolina Better Business Bureau, said donors can avoid scams and make sure their money is put to appropriate use:

*Be wary of charities that are high in emotion and low in fact.

Disturbing photographs and heartrending pleas for assistance are great for getting the point across, but an organization should also be able to provide specifics on what the money you donate will be used to accomplish, whether it's providing shelter or food or funding medical research.

*Ask for a copy of a charity's prospectus.

A charity's prospectus should explain who runs it and what the money is used to do, including how much is used to pay for overhead -- expenses such as paying the salaries of nonprofit employees, and covering the rent and utilities of any facilities.

"One of the red flags is if a charity does not give that information," said Ms. Baskin.

*Beware of solicitations that demand money immediately.

Don't give in to pressure that you must donate without checking out the charity, says Ms. Baskin. That may be a sign of a scamming attempt in progress.

"Charities will appreciate your money just the same whether it's next month or next year," she said.

*Make certain that donations of physical items like toys or clothes are going to a charitable organization.

Roadside collection boxes are unsecured and may not belong to a charity at all.

"Some of those clothes drop boxes are not going to a charity," said Ms. Baskin. "Make sure before you drop them in the box."

Some of the drop box maintainers sell the collected clothes, and there's no telling whether that money will go to a charity or not, she said.

*When in doubt, check with the BBB or rely on the Wise Giving Guide.

Every financial quarter, the BBB collects and releases information on different charitable agencies.

"We rate charities based on twenty standards," said Ms. Baskin. "We look at everything, from how often does the board meet to how much goes to the needy."

The BBB also provides a list of their carefully-vetted accredited charities.

But the warnings about Grinches in Santa suits shouldn't scare potential donors away from giving to reputable organizations, said Ms. Baskin.

Many charities are struggling to make their goals, she said.

And donators could one day end up on the other side of the good will equation.

"People who were donating last year are looking for help this year," said Ms. Baskin.