Ok, people, look alive! Let's get this Thanksgiving rocking with not only a nod to good causes, but also with a shout about how discerning we can be. We're rocketing into the season of giving. I've been to the mall and the grocery store and Hanukkah-Christmas season is upon us. Soon come the unverified charities asking me for cash outside the doors of these stores and extra solicitors at my own door and on the phone. It's time to give back and be grateful. Ok, ok, I'm thankful, you're thankful. But that doesn't have to translate into mindless giving. Let's go over some helpful ground rules for making donations that I developed after working as a reporter.
It all started in my journalism training about writing a complete news story. We were taught to ask the five "w's" which are: who, what, when, where and why. When you're about to give, make sure you answer the who first. Are they a tax-deductible organization? Being tax deductible has two advantages. The first is that, of course, you can deduct it on your income tax. The second is that the organization has their accounting on file in a public place. The document is the IRS Form 990. Checking this form can provide some delicious details when you're a reporter or a civilian giver. That's where you can often find out that the non-profit spent 85% on administration, with only 15% of their money going to actual people who are supposedly helped by the cause. Of course there are countless charities devoted to helping people that actually do that. But it's important to check their non-profit's 990, just to make sure. Many non-profits post their Form 990 on their websites. But, if they don't, you can often find those forms in the offices of the State Attorney General in many states across the country. And if you don't have the time you can visit a charity watchdog website, that does a lot of the checking for you.
Nonprofit websites and their literature often answer the what, when, where and why of their charities. If they don't have stories about real individuals or places you can find in a Google address search, they may be pulling your leg. A while back I had a friend of a friend who held a turkey dinner fundraiser at a church. He then helped cook the dinner and we did a Thanksgiving turkey day story for the six o'clock news. Later I learned that the man collected hundreds of dollars that went into his pocket beyond the cost of making the meals for the homeless. He actually had scammed a lot of people, because he operated on the word and good graces of people who had built up trust in the community. No matter what the cause, as a giver, I now ask people to mail me information or direct me to a website where I can confirm their organization's validity. I also find that when I ask a lot of the people asking for money outside grocery stores (who's causes appear to be homeless shelters, holiday meals or recovery houses) they often don't carry any official identification to show their affiliation or their organization has no such website or literature.
Finally, there are the five w's, but I also learned a sixth as a cub reporter. There is the question, who cares? I personally believe the best giving comes from the heart. It comes out of being compelled, not by being guilted into it. As someone who follows her intuition and encourages outhers to do the same, I believe having a really good feeling about a cause goes a long way in making good choices. Ask yourself, who cares? Do I really care about this cause. If your answer is yes, then take the time to ask the five w's. Beware of urgent giving, in the rush, you may be giving your hard-earned money to someone who's actually a thief dressed in the clothing of a charity. True, it is the season for giving. But the value of getting all the facts about a charity is timeless. That way you know your hard-earned money really is getting to people who need and deserve it.