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Charitable solicitations should put well-meaning donors on alert

Sun., July 19, 2009

Every Monday night I get a call from my dad, who lives in Arizona. From his perspective, I live a pretty exciting life and he loves to listen to my seven-day report each week. I know these weekly calls will not go on forever, so I make time to listen to him, too.

Lately he has been saving all the mail he gets asking for donations and I look up the sender and let him know if they meet the standards for charities at www.bbb.org. This week there were 12 organizations in his pile. That seems like a whole lot to me, but he routinely donates small amounts to just about anyone who asks. At work, I spend much of my time meeting with business leaders in three states, talking about ethics, the business climate and trust in the marketplace. Recently, they all tell me, the pleas for money from nonprofits are at a fever pitch. Many of them have defined systems for donations, but the businesspeople freely admit that if the cause tugs at one of their heart strings, they will often go out of the budget and donate or sponsor an event. They struggle with how to measure who gets what, where to look for effectiveness and having to say no to anyone.

As a leader of a nonprofit, I spend quality time with other nonprofit leaders, and we all share the same song these days. Demand for services is way up, and financial support is down. We all ask how we will meet the mission next year with fewer resources. When local and state governments cut programs, the unserved fall into the safety net of nonprofits.

I get so angry when a nonprofit gets money that does not deserve it. For example, the Cancer Fund of America solicits donations across the U.S., including locally, through telemarketers, direct mail and online. The BBB found that more than 99 percent of all cash donations to the organization pay professional fundraising costs, salaries for charity officials, consultant fees and other expenses related to the charity’s operations. And they raised more than $8 million in 2007. Just how much of that came out of our community is unknown, but that is money that a good local charity did not see.

The BBB offers the following tips to persons receiving charitable solicitations:

•Before giving, ask for written information about a charity’s program, finances and tax status – especially if you are unfamiliar with the organization.

•Don’t bend to pressure to give money immediately, especially over the phone. A charity that wants your money today also will welcome it later.

•Be cautious about charities that use names similar to well-known national organizations. Sometimes, an organization will choose a name in hopes that donors will confuse it with the better-known charity.

•Make sure a charity’s Web site has a privacy policy concerning the use of your name, e-mail address or other personal information.

•Check a charity’s Form 990 report at www.guidestar.org. The IRS requires most tax-exempt organizations to file a public Form 990.

•For more information on a charitable organization, you may contact the BBB at (509) 455-4200 or check its reliability report at www.bbb.org.

These resources are also good for times when a family member will not listen to you but could be convinced by an expert. My dad is not listening at the moment. When I reviewed his weekly donations last time, I found several that were not worthy of his money. But he told me, “I have donated to them for years, and will continue to do so.”

Well, you can lead a horse to water …

Jan Quintrall is president and CEO of the local Better Business Bureau. She can be reached at jquintrall@spokane.bbb.org or (509) 232-0530.

 

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