Most people agree that life in our country is greatly enhanced by the work of non-profit organizations that focus on giving a helping hand and emotional support to those who are struggling – whether economically because of job loss, emotionally because of a loved one’s death, or in every which way because of a natural disaster. The work of the Red Cross, Purple Heart, UMCOR, CROP, United Way, etc. is so important that it is priceless.
However, almost everyone who has contributed to such causes soon discovers that a steady and growing stream of requests begin to arrive from other organizations that also do good work. No one I know is able to give to every cause that solicits his/her support. So we are left with a dilemma – how do we decide who to support?
This question became one of particular interest during this month of September. As did all of you, I anticipated the many efforts to remember the events and honor the heroes of 9/11. However, one thing I did not anticipate was being solicited for a contribution by charities focused on 9/11 – to aid those in need and support memorials. I did some follow-up on this and discovered that the New York City Better Business Bureau has been highlighting some reports regarding 9/11 charities that solicited funds in the “name” of 9/11, but did not spend those funds appropriately.
This pointedly reminded me of two key concerns which a donor should always have before giving to any non-profit – 1) are they legitimate; and 2) how efficiently and faithfully do they use the donations they receive?
Whenever any organization calls me on the phone for a gift, I always ask for something to be mailed to me. Interestingly, I frequently receive resistance by the caller to idea of sending me something in the mail! If the cause is legitimate, why wouldn’t they send me something. Another reason I do this is because I never want to give any unsolicited caller, no matter how sincere they sound, any payment information over the phone. How do I know that they are who they say they are? A third thing I do is the search for information regarding the charity on the internet. Obviously, if I can not find them, or a clear demonstration that they account for the use of donations in a responsible way, why would I give money to them. Finally, I can check with the IRS regarding the approved tax-exempt status of the organization (http://www.irs.gov/app/pub-78/ ) and/or check with the Better Business Bureau and the State of Illinois Attorney General Office to see if any complaints or cases exist related to the organization.
One other standard that I recommend is to try to ascertain the “efficiency” ratio of the charity. As we all know, the government is one of the most inefficient organizations through which to channel “help people” money. A high percentage (if not most) of the funds gets eaten up by bureaucracy. One organization that contrasts sharply with that (low) standard is UMCOR – an international relief agency whose overhead is supported almost entirely by the parent organization. Therefore, over 90% of donated funds go directly to the people who are in need.