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25 Ways to Give Wisely

We all want to give, but we also want to be sure that our gifts go to legitimate, worthy organizations that will use our money to support valuable programs.

Here is your checklist of 25 things to look out for and be cognizant of when you’re considering making a gift to a charity. Many of these relate to telemarketing, since in this form of fundraising, you can’t see the person to whom you’re talking. But they are all good ideas to keep in mind as you examine which charities you want to support.

1. Develop a giving plan. It all starts with you being pro-active! So develop a giving plan of how much you’ll give, when you’ll give and to whom you’ll give. You don’t need all the specifics, just a general sense of these items. 

2. Take your time in making giving decisions and resist high-pressure appeals. The faster the sales pitch, the more you should just say no. Legitimate charities don’t need money at the exact moment a solicitation is made. 

3. If an organization uses pressure tactics—intimidation, threats, or repeated and harassing calls or visits—call your local Better Business Bureau to report the actions.

4. If an organization has called on you on the phone, never—EVER—have someone come by your house to pick up a check. This is a big tip-off that you’re dealing with a scam.

5. 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.

6. Don’t be fooled by charities with worthy-sounding names, or names that might sound similar to other organizations. Some questionable charities create names that are intended to sound like other well-known charities and mislead potential donors. 

7. Know the charity you are considering supporting. Ask the charity to send you a brochure or have them direct you to a website. If the response is slow, reluctant or not forthcoming at all, consider a different charity. 

8. Before making a gift, offer to volunteer your time. In this manner, you can not only help the organization but learn more about its goals, programs and management.

9. Don’t be fooled by official, technical-sounding terms like “tax identification number” or other jargon. Lots of different types of organizations have “tax identification numbers,” but it doesn’t make them charities. Organizations pushing these sorts of jargon should be avoided. 

10. When you’re examining a website for an organization with which you’re not familiar, look for indications that the website is updated and maintained correctly, has specific information about current programs and contains obvious contact information. A website that deals in very broad generalities should raise questions, but shouldn’t necessarily disqualify a charity from support. Dig deeper if you feel connected to the cause.

11. If you’re giving online, be sure that the website has appropriate security and privacy features.For example, on the donation, the address should be begin with “https” to signify that the site is secure and is safe to provide credit card and other information.

12. For an organization for which you’re not familiar, ALWAYS check its contact information during regular working hours and make sure you get a real person with knowledge of the organization.

13. Beware of fundraising letters and other materials that look like invoices or bills. Legitimate charities won’t send fundraising appeals that look like that.

14. It is against the law to demand payment for unsolicited merchandise—for example, the popular address labels, greeting cards, pens or calendars, to name just a few. You are under no obligation to pay for these items if they are sent to you with a fundraising letter.

15. If you’re asked to buy something to benefit a charity—tickets to an event, magazines, candy, etc.—find out how much will go to the charity. How much an organization will receive will differ. There’s no right amount, but be aware that it’s quite likely that not all of the money will be going to the charity. If you’re concerned, contact the charity and ensure the solicitor/seller has an official relationship with the organization.

16. Know how much of your gift will be tax deductible. This is especially true when you buy something on behalf of a charity (such as tickets or a dinner). The amount of your deduction is equal to how much you gave, MINUS the value of what you received (i.e., the cost of the ticket or the dinner). You can always turn down the item if you wish to claim a deduction for the full amount of your gift. Ask the organization for more details.

17. Maintain the correct records. It’s good practice to get a written acknowledgement from a charity about any gift, and legitimate organizations will supply them proactive as a best practice. The IRS requires a written acknowledgement for gifts of $250 or more. Otherwise, a canceled check or credit card statement is typically sufficient.

18. Ask a telemarketer if he or she is working for a percentage of the funds raised, is paid a set salary or fee or is a volunteer. If the telemarketer is taking a percentage of funds raised, hang up the phone. Percentage-based compensation is considered unethical. 

19. Ask for how much of the gift will be spent on programs. It’s extremely rare that 90-100 percent of your contribution will go to support a charity’s programs. 

20. Use the Donor Bill of Rights. This document was created by a group of philanthropic and fundraising organizations dedicated to the advancement of ethical and effective fundraising. Know your rights, and challenge the charities you support to uphold them. If they don’t, tell them you expect them to do so, or you’ll consider giving elsewhere.

21. Ensure that the fundraiser and the charity operate under a code of ethical standards. AFP members are required to abide by and sign annually the AFP Code of Ethical Principle and Standards. These standards or similar ones, can provide confidence that the charity and the fundraiser are legitimate and providing the highest level of ethical service to donors. 

22. Be sure you know what your gift is going to support: specific programs, a campaign to construct a building, general support, etc. If a gift is given for a specific purpose, it must be used for that purpose. 

23. Use charity watchdog/ranking organizations, but understand what they can and cannot offer. With more than a million charities across North America, most such organizations can offer financial information at best, about charities which can be helpful, but don’t provide the full picture on impact, etc. More popular and larger charities may be reviewed in more depth. 

24. Ask the organization for its Form 990 and/or financial audit. First, it’s a good check on a charity’s legitimacy and willingness to educate donors, as charities are required by law to provide copies upon request. Second, these forms can provide helpful information, but won’t provide a full picture. Click here to gain some insight on how to read the Form 990 and what to look for.

25. Ask if the charity is licensed by state and local authorities. Registration or licensing is required by most states and some local governments.



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