Today's tough economy has been doubly hard on non-profit organizations that rely on charitable contributions to fund their operations: First, many people are feeling the pinch themselves and have had to cut back on donations they ordinarily would make; and second, because so many people are out of work or otherwise hurting, charities that provide services to low-income families are being swamped just when their funding has been reduced.
If you're able to help others with charitable donations right now, whether it be cash, material goods or volunteering your time, make sure that the organizations are worthy of your support.
Here are a few suggestions for choosing among the millions of alternatives out there:
Bang for your buck. Make sure any non-profit to which you donate is well-run. Ideally the organization applies at least 75 percent of contributions to programs that serve its beneficiaries, as opposed to spending them on salaries, advertising, fund-raising and other administrative expenses, which are sometimes misreported as "program development," "public education" or other euphemisms.
Do your homework. Study the organization's website, annual report and mission statement, and ask for a copy of its IRS Form 990, which details how contributions are spent. Speak to staff members or volunteers, or volunteer there yourself. Or, if you know someone who has used its services, ask for their impressions of the organization's efficiency and helpfulness to clients.
Several online services can help with your research:
Take advantage of tax deductions. If you itemize deductions on your federal taxes, you can deduct money and property contributions to qualified tax-exempt organizations, within IRS guidelines. And, although your time spent volunteering isn't tax-deductible, associated mileage and other expenses may be. The IRS' Tax Information for Contributors website features a search engine for eligible organizations, information on reporting and substantiating charitable deductions and other helpful tips.
Guard against fraud. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people and organizations will take advantage of your desire to help others -- if you let them. A few tips:
Donate your time. If you can't afford a cash donation but still want to help, consider donating your time. Numerous organizations can match you up with local charities that suit your interests, including the government's United We Serve site, Network for Good, and Volunteer Match.
A few additional tips:
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.
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Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney