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End-of-Year Giving: Selecting a Charity for Your Holiday Donations

We reach deep into our pockets this time of year—and that often makes it easy for con artists to take advantage of generosity.

The holidays are a time of celebration, family, reflection and to help those who are in need. Giving to a charity each year is easy for most of us. We find ourselves drawn to a cause, a particular group, or an organization’s mission.

We want to help those who may be less fortunate than ourselves especially during the holidays when we often take the time to be thankful for what we have. When you have a personal tie to an organization, giving your hard-earned dollars is simple. 

According to the Charity Navigator website, on average, charities receive 41 percent of their annual contributions in the last few weeks of the year. However, what happens when you don’t have a charity in mind or you are new to giving monetary donations?

Often during this time of year, con artists take advantage of the generosity of givers and take the hard-earned money for themselves, rather than for reputable and legitimate nonprofit organizations that serve the most vulnerable in our community.

The average donation amount is much higher during the holiday season; in December, the average gift is approximately $142 versus an average of $91 for the year (source: Network for Good website) and the average person makes 24 percent of their annual donations between the Thanksgiving and New Year holidays (source: Center for Philanthropy).

Here are six quick tips to help you choose a legitimate organization and avoid being scammed:

Only give to a charity you know.

1. Do your research! Research an organization before you donate. There are a variety of online resources that provide free access to comprehensive reports about non-profit organizations. Start with a visit to California Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts (oag.ca.gov/charities), the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance (give.org), Guidestar (guidestar.com) and Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org). Plus, go to the organization’s website and really get a good understanding of what the charity does and who benefits from your donation.

2. Ask questions. Real charities tell you how they use their donations and what portion of your contribution will go directly to the group they are trying to help. Ideally, 85 cents of every dollar raised should go directly to direct programs and services of the charitable organization, with the minimal amount remaining to underwrite administrative salaries and operational expenses. Also, ask them for a 990 tax form. If they cannot give you this information, don’t give them your money.

3. Do not send to a P.O. Box. Make sure the organization has an actual street address, where you can go and see the charity in action at anytime.

4. Ask for a tour. Or even better just show up unannounced. A reputable charity would be delighted to give you a tour on the spot.

5. There should be no hard sell. Organizations don’t need money “today.” If they cannot give you an answer for what the donation is to be used for, then walk away.

When you donate this holiday season, make certain to follow these quick tips to make sure your charity is being fiscally and socially responsible, and that you know your money is going where you want it to. An informed decision is a wise decision.

—Paul Downey is chief executive officer and president of Senior Community Centers, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

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