Officials urge research before end-of-year donations

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As 2012 draws to a close, many charities are launching year-end fund drives. But as you consider making a donation, officials suggest doing some research before signing that check.


“We suggest that people use guidelines when giving to charity,” said Warren King, president of Western Pennsylvania Better Business Bureau.


King said as much as 40 percent of a charity’s annual contributions can be received during the last few weeks of the year. But in their haste to give, some donors may overlook good charities in favor of those that look good only on paper. King said he has seen charities that spend as much as 65 percent on fundraising and administrative costs with just 35 percent going to the actual mission.


“Like anything else, consumers should do their homework,” King said. “Make sure you know who you’re giving to because many institutions and charities sound very similar to one another or do the same type of mission.”


The Better Business Bureau has a link to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a list that ranks 10,940 nonprofits based on “standards for charity accountability,” on their website, www.WesternPennsylvaniaBBB.org. Other websites offering donator information include www.GuideStar.org and www.CharityNavigator.org.


King said people should make an effort to confirm the charity’s identity before signing a check. A lot of copycat organizations are created using names that are similar to an established charity in order to dupe well-meaning donors.


“Within hours of the shootings in Connecticut, hundreds of bogus charities popped up online,” King said.


King said payments should be made via check or credit card when giving and cash should be avoided. Donors should keep a record of their charitable giving.


In Pennsylvania, charities receiving more than $20,000 are required to be registered. But that does not necessarily mean they will have a good rating or are using their funds appropriately.


The Washington County Community Fund is a nonprofit organization that awards and helps write grants for charities in the area.


“We tell people to do your homework,” said Betsie Trew, the fund’s president and chief executive officer. “In general, steer away from any national, huge solicitations of money because they’re likely going outside of the area.”


The foundation’s website, www.WCCF.net, also offers financial information on all of the charities with which they work. Trew said before the foundation works with any local charity, it sifts through a wide variety of background information by going over financial records and conducting site visits.


“Go through the proper channels,” Trew said. “Not some appeal you see on TV, the radio or if they call you on the phone asking for a credit card contribution.


“That’s how the scamming process takes advantage of an emotional situation like Sandy. People have big hearts and they want to help, but sometimes they’re not going about it in the right way,” Trew said.


The Washington City Mission, one of the organizations that the community foundation works with, has about 75 cents from every dollar going toward providing a roof for homeless people in the area. The rest goes toward administrative costs and fundraising initiatives.


“We have a very structured program,” said Donna Bussey, associate director for media with the mission. “What we have learned is the longer we can keep the homeless safely living in one place, the better their chances for recovery.”


Bussey said the city mission houses hundreds of people throughout the year. In addition to paying for living spaces, the mission also runs a food kitchen that operates 365 days a year. She said it’s important that people know their donation dollars are going as far as possible because so many organizations are competing for dwindling resources.


“The average person is not able to give as much because of the economy,” Busey said. “We’re looking to apply for more grants and tap into more foundation money, but it makes those resources much more limited than they ever were.”


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