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Making the right charitable choice

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Snail mail is not dead. Want proof? Tally the number of “Dear Friend” letters you will receive this holiday season. Throw in e-blasts, social media and old-fashioned phone calls, and I suspect you will be “touched” by more than a dozen charities — some you know and many more you’ve never heard of.

The explanation is quite simple. Most charities raise most of their funds during the holiday season. Donors, in a charitable mood because of all the holiday cheer, are aware that April 15 — and the need for tax deductions — creeps up fast.

Many of us already have a deeply rooted passion for the mission of our favorite charities. We’ve done our due diligence and know the impact of our gifts.

Make a New Year’s resolution to write down a charitable giving plan for the coming year. Choose the organizations you want to support, determine how much you can afford to donate and when is the best time for you to make the gifts. For many donors, making a consistent monthly gift is the easiest approach.

Remember, a legitimate charity will always be happy to receive your donation in whatever timeframe works best for you. Any organization that pressures you to “give now” should raise a serious red flag and probably be crossed off the list.

You also should receive periodic updates on the impact of your gift — something I call Social Return on Investment (Social ROI). Social ROI simply means something positive happened, mission-related, because of your gift. A responsible charity will periodically provide updates on the impact it is having thanks to your support. Be wary of any organization that is vague about what happened or provides no report.

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 programs and services of the charitable organization, with the minimal amount remaining to underwrite rent, utilities and other operational expenses.

What about that “Dear Friend” letter from an organization you currently don’t support but have interest in its mission? My recommendation is to treat the gift like a major purchase, where you would do some homework before buying.

Nowadays there are easy ways to research charities. Start with a visit to California Attorney General's Registry of Charitable Trusts (oag.ca.gov/charities), Guidestar (guidestar.com) and Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org). Or go to the organization’s website to get a good understanding of what the charity does and who benefits from your donation.

If you are considering a significant gift, I would request a tour to see first-hand what the organization is doing. Better yet, show up unannounced. A reputable organization will be happy to accommodate.

I would also request copies of the organization’s 990 form (essentially a charity’s tax return to the IRS) and a copy of the annual audit, which is different than an annual report (usually a distilled version of the audit). Any hesitancy in proving these documents should be a red flag. Their only question should be whether you want it via email or snail mail.

Here are some quick tips to help you chose a legitimate organization and avoid being scammed:

• Give only to a charity you know.

• Ask lots of questions.

• Make sure the organization has an actual street address, where you can go to see the charity in action at anytime — do not send to a P.O. Box.

• Never send cash or wire funds — always donate by check or credit card.

• Take precaution when donating online. Make sure the charity has a secure donation link.

• There should be no hard sell. Walk away from anyone who says you must donate today or offers to come by your house to pick up a check. A reputable charity will be delighted to accept a gift today, next week, next month or even next year.

There are many fine charities in San Diego that do wonderful work and are worthy of your support. By following these tips, you will sleep well knowing that your hard-earned dollars are changing and saving lives.

Lastly, as president and CEO of Serving Seniors, I would like to say thank you to all of you who generously have supported us in 2014. We deeply appreciate your generosity. For those of you who haven’t made a gift yet, please “kick our tires” and see what we are all about.

Happy Holidays!

Downey is the president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty for more than 40 years. Learn more at servingseniors.org.

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