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Coping with charities’ pleas during the holidays

Guide to holiday giving

It’s not your imagination. A rising number of charitable solicitations are cramming into your email inbox along with party invitations and toy ads, hoping to remind the fortunate to remember the needy during this season of bounty.

How can you ignore a request from a food pantry when you’re hosting a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings? Can you resist a plea from an animal shelter when Fido the dog and Fluffy the cat have personalized stocking hanging on your fireplace?

Charities bring in more than one-third of their donations in the year’s last three months as they capitalize on people’s innate generosity during the holidays along with their desire to nab last-minute tax deductions.  

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Planning ahead to donate to the causes and organizations most important to you is the most effective way to avoid being overwhelmed by the flood of appeals, said Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB Giving Alliance. He added that developing a personalized giving strategy relieves the pressure people can feel by the swell of donation requests because they’ve already made contributions. And who doesn’t want less pressure during the holidays?

You have a multitude of ways to judge individual charities after deciding what issues you want to support. Check out sites like the BBB Giving Alliance’s, Charity Navigator and CharityWatch. They all rate charities based on factors such as finances, governance and success in carrying out their mission.

There are over 1 million charities, according to Charity Navigator, so it’s impossible to rank them all. Groups that do fail to make a list shouldn’t be automatically overlooked, Taylor said. Still, potential donors should do their homework on the smaller groups as well as the larger ones.

Be wary of any nonprofit making outlandish claims of success or claiming it alone has the solution to a problem. Think twice about giving money to an organization with an especially hard-sell like insisting a donation must be made immediately. Those could be signs of a scam.

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Ask any charity contacting you by phone if it has other means of raising money. Taylor said phone solicitations are especially expensive, and any charity dependent on that method may signal it isn’t using funds effectively.

No definitive rules specifiy how much a charity should spend on administration and fundraising, said Taylor. On average, he said a charity should spend at least 65 percent of each dollar raised on programming, while no more than 35 cents should go to fundraising.

“Some charities don’t have to spend a lot on fundraising because they have a celebrity that opens their mouth, and the money comes pouring in,” he said.  “Others have to do more blocking and tackling.”

He cautions against getting too hung up on ratios. It may look great if a charity dedicates 90 percent of it donations to support its cause. However, that seemingly positive attribute could mask other problems, such as one family controlling an organization’s board or board members selling goods and services to an organization.

It’s important to check out an organization’s website, especially if it isn’t rated by one of the watch dog organizations. Make sure it has audited financial statements and information about its programs. If it’s local, go visit. Said Taylor: “You want to make sure they’re transparent about what they are doing.”

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