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Do your homework to find the right charity

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Would you buy a car without taking it for a test drive or kicking the tires? Of course you wouldn’t, but many people make gifts to nonprofit organizations, especially during the holiday season, without taking a peek under the organization’s hood to make sure everything is in working order.

Working order simply means that the organization is delivering on its mission in a cost-effective, transparent way that creates real impact in our community. Most San Diego charities meet this challenge and are worthy of your generosity, but do your homework to make sure your dollars are being used effectively.

Here are seven quick tips to help you choose a legitimate organization and avoid being scammed:

1. Give only to a charity you know or that has been recommended by a trusted friend or family member

2. Ask for a tour. Or even better, just show up unannounced. A reputable charity would be delighted to give you a tour on the spot or allow you to walk around on your own and interact with their clients.

3. Do you research! Research an organization before you donate. There are many online resources that provide free access to comprehensive reports about nonprofits. Start with the California Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts (www.oag.ca.gov/charities), Guidestar (www.guidestar.com) and Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org). Plus, go to the organization’s website and get a good understanding of what the charity does and who benefits from your donation.

4. Ask questions. Real charities are able to tell you how they use their donations and what portion of your contribution will go directly to the group they are trying to help. Ideally, at least 85 cents of every dollar raised should go directly to direct programs and services, with the rest to underwrite administrative salaries and operational expenses. Ask for a copy of the organization’s annual report. If you really want to understand their financials, ask for either the annual audit or 990 tax forms. If they cannot give you this information or hesitate in any way — don’t give them your money.

5. Do not send to a post office box. Make sure the organization has an actual street address, where you can go and see the charity in action at anytime. Do not send cash and do not wire money.

6. Take care when donating online. Beware of phony websites and donate though a website that is secure by looking for “https” not “http.” Also, do not open unsolicited e-mail appeals because they can be an attempt to get important information from your business.

7. There should be no hard sell. A legitimate charity will be delighted to accept your gift today, tomorrow, next month or next year. Walk away from anyone who tries to pressure you into making a gift immediately.

Here at Senior Community Centers, we provide all the details a donor may want to know about our organization on our website. There you can reference several years of annual reports to see exactly where your dollars are spent. We love to have people “kick our tires” and come for tours at any of our sites, including our nationally recognized Gary and Mary West Wellness Center.

We also just launched our “Fill A Plate” campaign, which is raising money from San Diegans to support feeding seniors in need. These vital meals keep seniors healthy and productive members of our community. Go to our website: www.servingseniors.org to get more information or to make a contribution. “Fill A Plate” is an easy way to support senior nutrition through the holidays.

One last suggestion for this holiday season: Consider asking your friends and family to make gifts to your favorite charity instead of giving you another tie or fruitcake. And of course, you can do the same for them. Please be generous — many San Diegans in need are counting on you.

Downey is president and CEO of Senior Community Centers, a nonprofit agency dedicated to keeping San Diego seniors healthy and independent. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.

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