Tri-Citians cautioned to research before giving

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldDecember 17, 2012 

As Tri-Citians dig deep to help provide food, shelter, medical care and other basics for those in need, they shouldn't let their hearts overwhelm their heads.

Nonprofits and Better Business Bureau officials advise that Tri-Citians do a little research prior to writing that check or handing off their hard-earned cash.

First, make sure the nonprofit is bona fide, suggested Maj. Julio Vasquez, coordinator for the Tri-Cities Salvation Army.

"Always double-check," he said.

Be especially wary of phone calls soliciting donations, Vasquez said. He advised not giving over the phone unless the donor has initiated the call.

If the nonprofit name sounds new or is close to a well-known charity, check to make sure it isn't a scam, said Chelsea Dannen, BBB spokeswoman. Especially around the holidays, scammers try to get people to give money to them by using causes that sound legitimate.

"Trust your instincts if you have never heard of them before," she said.

Then, find out how much of a nonprofit's budget goes to services, suggested John Neill, executive director of the Tri-Cities Food Banks.

It's important to know how much of each dollar given goes directly to the desired cause.

For example, the food bank's overhead is about 2 percent because it is an all-volunteer organization, he said. That overhead covers necessities like keeping the lights on at the food banks.

The normal percentage of overhead tends to be about 25 percent, said Vasquez said. With the Salvation Army, 85 percent of every dollar donated goes directly to assist families in need.

The Salvation Army's bell-ringing campaign aims to raise $150,000 this year, he said.

Do some research about the organization, advised Beverly Weber, CEO of United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties. Find out how the nonprofit is governed and who makes decisions about how money is used.

And make sure an organization does what they say they do with donations, Vasquez said.

Look for results, Weber agreed. Determine if the nonprofit does what they say they will and if they are fixing a problem.

Consider whether the nonprofit is visible in the community and if their work is heard about throughout the year.

Make sure the organization is highly reputable and meets the BBB's best practices and is in compliance with the IRS, Weber said.

Some of those best practices include making sure the majority of funds go to the cause and that the nonprofit is transparent about how they are run, Dannen said.

Weber suggested checking out charities on GuideStar, a website that gathers information about nonprofits, or the BBB websites.

The BBB website is best for looking up nationally accredited nonprofits, Dannen said.

But for local charities, ask the charity itself for information such as what percentage of donations go to actual services, Dannen said.

To get financial information for a charity, ask the charity for a copy of their 990, a form most have to fill with the IRS. This is considered public information, and can be requested from the IRS, but can be faster to get from the charity.

Small nonprofits that typically receive less than $50,000 in a year submit a 990-N, also called an e-Postcard, which is an abbreviated version of the form, according to the IRS.

As a donor, it's important to make sure a charity is open, Weber said. United Way is in the midst of a campaign to raise $4.7 million and has reached the $2 million mark. The campaign ends March 31, with the next one starting April 1.

And Dannen suggested making a donation plan and sticking to it for the year. Go with the organizations that are familiar and trustworthy that fulfill the need the donor desires, she said.

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