By Times staff writer
Are you considering giving money to a charitable organization? If so, your money could do a tremendous amount of good. But before you donate, be sure to do some homework and demand accountability from any organization you choose to support. Consider these tips.
1. WHAT'S IN A NAME? Be leery of solicitations from organizations with impressive-sounding names or names that resemble those of widely-known charities. In some cases, this is a deliberate ploy to get you to part with your money more readily.
2. EXAMINE THE GROUP'S FINANCES. Florida law gives prospective donors the right to receive a copy of a charity's financial reports before giving money. Ask for the organization's latest annual report, list of board members and latest financial statements.
3. COMPARE INCOME WITH EXPENSES. The goal should be to find an organization that spends at least half its total income on charitable programs and at least half its public contributions on the programs described in its appeals. No more than half of the group's total income should go to administrative and fundraising costs.
4. DO A BACKGROUND CHECK. Investigate the organization's complaint history by calling the Better Business Bureau at 1-800-955-5100 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at 1-800-435-7352.
5. DON'T GIVE CASH. Always contribute by check, and make it payable to the charity, not to the person collecting the donation.
6. MAKE SURE YOUR GIFT WILL BE TAX-DEDUCTIBLE. Watch out for groups that describe themselves as "tax exempt," which simply means they do not have to pay taxes. If the tax deduction matters to you, give your gift to a group with 501(c)(3) status under the Internal Revenue Code.
7. KEEP GOOD RECORDS. Hang on to all receipts, canceled checks, bank statements and other evidence of your donation so you'll be prepared to document your giving at tax time.
8. ASK LOTS OF QUESTIONS. If a solicitor contacts you on the phone, at your home or on the street, ask for identification from the solicitor, the full name and address of the charity and the purpose of the donations. Also ask whether the group has 501(c)(3) status. Don't give anything until you've received satisfactory answers to all your questions.
9. DON'T FALL FOR HIGH-PRESSURE TACTICS. Some solicitors will offer to send a "runner" to pick up your money right away. Recognize this as the scam that it is. Reputable charities would be happy to receive your gift tomorrow, next week or next month.
10. BE ALERT WHEN OPENING YOUR MAIL. Steer clear of "charitable" organizations that send you unordered merchandise and request payment or that illegally send appeals disguised as bills or invoices. File complaints about such solicitations with the Better Business Bureau and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
-- Compiled by Laura T. Coffey. Sources: Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org); Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (doacs.state.fl.us)
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