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Checking Out Charities

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Don’t get scammed, donate to legitimate charities

Whether you call it good luck, fortune, blessings or karma, sharing what you have with a charitable organization is a good thing to do. But knowing how your gift will be used represents an essential part of donating.

Make sure the organization is legitimate, whether you are donating online, in person or by check. 

One way to do this is to give through an existing, well-known group like Central New York Community Foundation or United Way. 

These organizations vet the groups to which they disburse funds so you can feel secure that your money will go to someone that will use it for the cause they claim.

“Gifting to a charity for a cause you care about is an act of faith in that organization,” said Thomas Griffith, vice president, development at the Central New York Community Foundation. “Sometimes, the donor knows an organization well, but other times it may be an organization they are just learning about or that is helping with a one-time need like relief for a specific disaster. In either case, donors benefit from the due diligence that the Community Foundation performs when making grants for our fundholders by knowing the recipient organization is in good standing.”

CNYCF’s donor-advised fund is its most common tool for lifetime giving. Griffith said that donors can make tax-deductible contributions to their fund when they need to and then distribute those resources to charitable organizations over time.

“We can also help identify organizations that match your charitable interests and offer individualized service and strategies to help you carry out your goals and suggest ways to increase your impact,” he added.

Giving through an organization like CNYCF streamlines the donation process and makes recordkeeping much simpler. An endowment fund can be included in the donor’s estate to create a legacy of support to important causes that continues forever.

In the last fiscal year ending March 31, CNYCF distributed $18.1 million. The total distributed over the organization’s history is more than $250 million.

Fraudsters like to masquerade as legitimate concerns and have become very good at doing so. Spoofing technology allows them to appear to call from the same phone number as a trusted charity. It is easy to copy a charity’s letterhead for a postal solicitation. Many scammers try to fool unsuspecting people with an email using the same logo and links that direct people to a webpage mimicking the real one.

Never give your financial information over the phone. Door-to-door or email solicitors can claim whatever they want. However, if you give to the organization directly, that is safer. Some scammers insist they receive donations in cash (a bad idea) or in checks made out to them. Checks should be written out to the organization, not one person.

The safest way to donate is to give directly to the organizations you know—and not through a link posted on social media or sent to you in an email (most real charities will not email an initial request, although some follow up with an email to previous contributors).

“Because some of these charities have gotten so big, we’re seeing more interest in keeping dollars local and investing in charities where you can see the impact,” said Leyla Z. Morgillo, certified financial planner with Madison Financial Planning Group in Syracuse.

If you are looking for a new organization, start with a cause dear to you. Ask a trusted friend who is familiar with the organization and looking at their board listed on the website. For local charities, you should recognize some board members as area businesspeople and contact them from their business’ phone number to ask about the organization.

If possible, volunteer with them to get to know their mission and needs. While financial gifts are always welcomed, you may have a possession that could also benefit their cause.

You should also check the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org) and Charity Star, (www.charitynavigator.org) for information on larger charities.

Robert A. Rolfe, financial adviser with Harmony Financial Services in Oswego, encourages givers to identify the organization’s mission, which should be publicly available.

“Their Form 990, which is a public document, shows if they’re a 501(c)(3) organization,” he said.

The charities with 501(c)(3) designation have been approved for tax-exempt status and are legitimate in the eyes of the IRS. Search for the organization by its employer identification number at apps.irs.gov/app/eos or call 877-829-5500.

Rolfe encourages potential donors to ask for the organization’s financial statements.

“It’s helpful that a lot of organizations have an annual report,” Rolfe added. “If it’s a major donation, look at their audit and results. I’d want to talk with the executive director or resource development director so the cause I’m trying to support is in fact going to happen with the support I’m going to give them.”

CharityNavigator estimates that most organizations use about 75% of their budget for their cause with the remaining 25% supporting administration (15%) and fundraising costs (10%). While this varies by organization, percentages wildly different should raise concern.

You should also have the contact information for the organization, including a physical address.

Search online for complaints against the organization. In addition to searching with the IRS site, to check the Better Business Bureau’s search tool, https://www.give.org, and to see if a charity is registered in its state, look it up on the website of the National Association of State Charity Officials (www.nasconet.org/resources/state-government).

Got Scammed?

If you believe you have been scammed, contact the Department of State at www.dos.ny.gov or 1-800-697-1220; the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov or 1-877-FTC-HELP; the New York State Attorney General at 1-800-771-7755 or www.charitiesnys.com.