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Giving Well

Of all of humanity’s positive traits, and there are a few, charity might be the most important. Our ability to reach out and help, especially when we do so anonymously and without expectation of receiving something in return, is at the same time human and divine. It’s the purest argument in defense of free will that I imagine.

If you haven’t got any charity in your heart, you have the worst kind of heart trouble.

– Bob Hope

As I write this, we’ve had two hurricanes down south with another on the way, and the northwest is experiencing a rash of major wildfires. No doubt more disasters lie in wait, ready to kick us while we’re on the ropes. It never really stops. The only constant is human need. Every other commercial break on TV has an ad for a charity, usually filled with sad-eyed puppies and children, asking for your charity dollar.

If you, like me, are blessedly living somewhere that got a hall pass this year, you’re probably wondering how you can help out. You know, maybe cut a few corners in this month’s budget, skip that double-half-caff latte, and send a few bucks where it’ll do some good.

But where?

There are a lot of crooks out there. It’s not particularly hard to set up a charity and spend most of the revenue on salaries and fundraising, passing on just enough to the people you’re supposed to be helping to keep your 501(c)(3) status. How do you steer clear of these guys?

Well, there are a few places you can check. These are three of them:

All of those services provide information on charities, what they do with the money you send them, and what services they provide. You can search their database for the charity you want to donate to before you write the check.

The thing I’ve noticed, however, is they seem to be pretty forgiving. You need to check out the methodology they use to see if it works for you. Also, if the charity doesn’t have to file a 990 form with the IRS, they don’t get rated by these sites. Religious organizations, for instance, are exempt from this filing. So, if you want to check them out, you’ll need to do some legwork. The same goes for small local charities. If they deal with small amounts of money, under $200K, they are exempt, too. I’d recommend asking them for their financials before giving them your money. If they won’t give it to you, that’s probably a red flag.

What should you look for? Personally, I’d be looking at the percentage of revenues that end up in the “program” category. For instance, the American Red Cross takes about 10% for overhead with the rest going to their programs. I’d say that sounds reasonable. Anything over that, and I’d start getting suspicious. The question still remains, “How efficient are those programs?” I’m afraid I can’t answer that with the info on Charity Navigator. Again, I’d have to do some legwork.

Another thing that you could look at is the salaries of the administrators. These are good for several “expose” articles every year, because it turns out the people who run these outfits bring down some pretty good paychecks. It’s great clickbait, the sort of piece you can write, get lots of folks outraged, and pick up lots of shares on social media. For instance, the President and CEO of the Red Cross makes over $500K per year. To me that seems a little steep. I’d do it for a fraction of that. On the other hand, Gail McGovern is managing $2.7 trillion dollars in revenue. I gotta figure the Red Cross’ board of directors wants someone with a little more experience handling that kind of money than an ex-computer programmer with delusions of being a novelist. That skillset doesn’t come cheap. I’ll leave the decision on whether this is an effective argument to you. For my part, I’ll just say that I prefer to be paid the market rate for what I do, and assume she feels the same way.

I’m interested in who you’re giving to this year and why. Please drop a line or two in the comments and let me know.

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