Tis the season of giving.
And for getting fleeced, if you're not careful.
While we encourage the spirit of sharing that motivates so many Tri-Citians to open their hearts and wallets, we'd advise a little caution too.
Just in time for Christmas, Secretary of State Sam Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna have released the 2010 Commercial Fundraiser Activity Report.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The document is a timely reminder that some of the fundraising organizations are more motivated by greed than a commitment to service, regardless of how heart-wrenching the plea.
The report was unveiled in a telephone town hall meeting, linking 10,000 senior citizens with Reed, McKenna and AARP State Director Doug Shadel. With seniors so often the target of con artists and frauds, the virtual meeting seemed particularly appropriate.
The report focuses on paid fundraisers who solicit donations on behalf of police, firefighters, veterans organizations and other charitable causes.
These professional fundraisers charge for their services through fees, retaining a percentage of the donations or both.
The best ones kept less than 10 percent of the funds raised, according to the report.
But the worst ones charged more than what they collected, resulting in a net loss for the charities they were supposed to be helping. About a fourth of the paid fundraisers returned to charity less than 20 percent of the money raised.
So, it pays to know which sort of fundraiser you're dealing with before you decide to give.
The good news is that overall, professional fundraisers are improving.
The average percentage of contributions returned to charity clients was 77 percent, according to the report. That's a significant increase over previous years.
In all, more than $1.4 billion was raised by the 107 paid fundraisers included in the report.
One option is to give directly to the charities you want to support. Of the 9,757 charities registered in Washington, only 653 used paid fundraising services.
Even then, it's a good idea to check out the intended recipient.
The Secretary of State's office maintains an online database of financial histories and other information on fundraisers and charities. The web address is www.sos.wa.gov/charities.
You also can call 800-332-4483 and ask about any charity.
AARP's "Check Before You Give" program offers tips for making the most of your charitable donations:
w Be wary of appeals that tug at your heartstrings, especially pleas involving patriotism and current events.
w Be alert for charities with names that closely resemble respected charities.
w Ask for written information and materials to be mailed to you before you make a giving decision, and take your time to make a decision about donating.
w Avoid cash gifts. They can be lost or stolen. For security and tax record purposes, it is best to pay by check, made payable to the charity, not the fundraiser.
w Ask for a receipt showing the amount of the contribution and stating that it is tax deductible.
w Develop a "charity giving plan" by selecting a set of charities and investigating them thoroughly.
A packet containing these and other tips is available from the AARP Fraud Fighter Call Center by calling 800-646-2283.
The needs are plentiful this year, but so are the crooks. Fortunately, it's easy to make sure your donations go to the people you want to help.