Are we making wise decisions about our charitable contributions?


Hopefully, each of us has a charitable heart.  Whether we support educational programs, the arts, disabled veterans, disaster relief, Native Americans, or (name your own favorite cause), we want our charitable moneys to be well spent.  So, the question is, how do we make good decisions about our charitable contributions.

I took this photograph of my dog in an attempt at a little levity.  But it is a significant matter.  Charities and foundations solicit and receive millions of dollars a year from caring contributors like ourselves.

I could set up a charity, comply with the legal requirements and begin to solicit contributions for Kansas City dogs like Casey who have sustained minor injuries.  I could pay myself a salary and an expense account and give nearly nothing for the care of injured animals.  Would anyone contribute?  I hope not, since organizations like Wayside Waifs do such a great job of caring–and finding forever homes–for dogs and cats like Casey.  As evidenced by the fact that Casey is a product of that wonderful organization.

Over $300 billion dollars a years is contributed annually to U.S. charities.  That is an amazing outpouring of generosity from individuals and corporations.  As staggering as the amount of money, we can’t afford to have any of that money wasted.  But it is likely that millions of our dollars fall through the cracks.

All of us have seen, heard or read the tragic stories of human or animal suffering accompanied by a request for money?  I have received solicitations from charities enclosing pennies, dollar bills or a piece of a blanket, accompanied by a request for a contribution.  More important, my 97 year old father has: over, and over, and over again.  Often the same charity sends mailings on a weekly basis.  Sometimes charities with different names, but the same return address, solicit contributions from unknowing but caring individuals–like my dad, who gives generously, but (sorry dad) not always cautiously.  But seriously, why would any charity take my contribution and use my money to send pennies or dollars or trinkets to other potential donors?

Anderson Cooper recently did a special entitled Charity Cheats.   He focused on investigations conducted through AC 360, his program, and research conducted by CNN’s Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick.  He focused on charities and fundraising organizations that solicit and collect millions of dollars, but provide almost no funding for services. Primarily, Cooper focused on  the high cost of building mailing lists, and the abuse of in-kind gifts to intended recipients of charitable dollars.

In addition to the abuses on which Anderson Cooper has focused his attention, there are  also charities that pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries to key employees.  A few have been targeted for having huge financial holdings, vast amounts of real estate and supporting elaborate lifestyles for their founders and employees. If these claims are true, how do we protect ourselves from the abuses addressed by Cooper, and others?

Before you open your checkbook to make a contribution to a charity about which you have little information, beware. Most organizations work hard to squeeze every penny out of the donations they receive.  But a few, large and small, are very poor stewards of our money.  So what to do? Find out about charities to which you wish to donate. Numerous watchdog agencies offer assistance in helping us spend our money carefully.  Among them are The Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the American Institute for Philanthropy, GrantSmart, GuideStar, the National Charities Information Bureau and Charity Navigator. Their methodologies may differ, but they provide information not easily available from other sources.

For many of us, the adage to “put your money where your mouth is” may be the best advise.  When we contribute our time and our money to the same organization, we significantly increase the chances that our money is well spent.  When our goal is provide assistance outside of our own areas of knowledge, looking to the wisdom of experts on evaluating charities may be the best way to protect our contributions and those we seek to benefit.

The opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the opinions of our families, our friends or our employers.  Obviously, Anderson Cooper and the investigative reporters at CNN take seriously the issues in “Charity Cheats” and similar reports.   

[1]Casey was obviously an unwilling model for my photo-shoot.  Hard as I tried to get him to appear in distress, he was having none of it.


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