NEW YORK (MainStreet) As the holidays and the end of the year approach, most of us take a bit of time to assess and appreciate our good fortune. It's a time when we feel most charitable, as our material blessings magnify our compassion for those currently suffering hard times, whether here at home or around the world.
But in a world fraught with fraud and misinformation, charitable contributions require careful consideration and a bit of research.
One of the best ways to perform due diligence on a charity is to take a hard look at its annually filed IRS Form 990, according to Doug White, an expert in non-profits and philanthropy, as well as an adjunct professor in the Master's program for fundraising management at Columbia.
"The best place for accurate financial information is the organization's 990, which, if it's not available through its website, can be accessed on Guidestar," says White. "But keep in mind, the 990 information is old -- at least a year, almost always closer to two years old, and it is subjectively compiled."
But take double care: some non-profits use a little wiggle room in these reports.
"Some charities game the system to make it look as if less is being spent on overhead and fundraising than is actually the case," White tells MainStreet. "For overall information, the person should visit the organization's webpage, and call or visit the people who work there. Be sure to get a sense of their openness; anyone who doesn't answer a person's questions -- directly and fully, no matter who's asking, is suspect of a lack of transparency."
FindTheData.org offers a list of "America's Worst Charities," compiled with data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service by the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting. The website says that many charities on the list use third-party fundraising companies to gain the vast majority of their donations, handing over at least two-thirds of the proceeds to these paid solicitors. Experts say that good charities should spend no more than 35 cents to raise a dollar.