Uncovering uncharitable charities

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As we move into the holiday season where we’re asked to help the less fortunate, I’d like to use today’s blog entry to stray a little off-topic—dealing with how your computer and certain web resources can make you a more effective giver.

Like a lot of people, when it comes to charity, I’m lazy. Rather than sit down with a list of causes that deserve my dollars, I wait for the calls that inevitably interrupt my dinner and offer contributions if the pitches are convincing. Recently I’ve been flooded with these calls and it finally dawned on me that something other than the phase of the moon must influence the frequency of these demands.

I finally turned to my Mac and began searching for information on the organizations I was contributing to. As it turns out, in most cases I was contributing to a single organization—a “charity mill” that represents a slew of charities. When I contributed to one of these charities, I was added to the mill’s list and subsequently solicited for the mill’s other clients.

Armed with this information, the next time I was solicited I asked the person on the other end of the line who, other than the stated charity, they worked for. They replied with the charity’s name.

“No, I mean what’s the name of the fundraising organization that represents this charity?”

“I don’t know.”

That set the spidey senses tingling.

“Well, how much of the money I donate goes to the charity?”

“After expenses, all of it,” he replied.

“That’s not really helpful unless you tell me how much those expenses are.”

“I don’t know.”

“Tell you what, I’ll sniff around to find out, you call me back in a couple of days, and I’ll answer those questions for you. Bye bye.”

I learned that charities are required to register with a state’s Attorney General’s office, providing some financial data in the process. A Google search under “charity attorney general nameofstate ” (where nameofstate is the name of your state) should turn up information that helps you learn about who represents charities and how much of your money goes to the charitable cause. For example, California includes a Charities Search link on the Attorney General’s page that takes you to a search engine that reveals the financial data for many of the charities that operate in the state. The state of Washington offers a Commercial Fundraiser Activity Report in PDF format that tells you specifically which mill represented which charities in 2004 and how much of the donated money eventually made its way to the charity.

Both these resources were an eye-opener as I discovered that for every $100 I donated to a charity represented by a certain mill, a meagre $13 went to the cause I thought I was supporting. The rest stayed with the mill.

As you can imagine, the follow-up call from the solicitor didn’t go so well.

Since then I’ve spoken with a number of solicitors, politely asking who they work for and how much of my money goes to the cause. When they dissemble (and not all do) I ask them to stay on the line, I flip open the Commercial Fundraiser Activity Report, and I do my best to set them straight so they’re better informed when they’re next asked these questions.

I’ve made an early New Year’s resolution to be a proactive giver—seeking out charities that do the right thing with my money and asking the mills to remove my name from their rolls.

If, like me, you’ve been lazy, I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes and take the time to ensure that your money goes to the needy rather than greedy.

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