Katheryn Rivas's Blog

Do your research before giving to charity

Friday, August 10, 2012 by

You’d think that giving to charity would be a simple, worry-free task. In theory, you give a modest monetary or general gift donation to your favorite charity with the expectation that they’d put those donations to good use. Most of the time that’s exactly how things happen—charities and nonprofits run without a hitch, doing the good work that we expect them to do by spending our donations on just causes.

But recently it’s become increasingly clear that some charities are not exactly acting charitable when it comes to using their donations on those in need. Over the past few months, I’ve noticed quite a few news outlets publishing shocking stories about so-called charitable organizations that espouse to be doing good in the world in one breath and hoarding millions of dollars from donors in the next. It’s a major problem, especially for someone who regularly contributes to charities under the assumption that organizations spend donations in all the right places.

I’d like to spend a little time cautioning you to be more careful about the charities you support. Charitable organizations are wonderful, necessary entities in this world, but they aren’t immune from scrutiny. The more you know about what to look out for, the more informed decisions you can make when you donate.

Questionable charities: More common than you’d expect

Cable news giant has contributed a number of stories on the nefarious activities of suspect charities, some of with handle millions of dollars from donors around the world. In one story, CNN focused attention on SPCA International, an animal charity dedicated to supporting animals worldwide. The story’s findings state that SPCA International had spent much less money than it had raised in recent years, causing many analysts to question their motivations for doing so. The article specifically states that in 2010 alone the charity spent less than 0.5% of $14 million raised on animal shelter programs.

The obvious question is where did the rest of the money go if not to the animals in need? The CNN article does a lot of thorough investigation into this question that I won’t get into here, but the case with this charity helps paint the picture of an organization with dubious practices. If anything, the story should encourage you to research and investigate charities before donating to them.

How can you best research and vet charities of interest?

Earlier this year there was a great article from Lifehacker that detailed a few methods to check out the financial practices of a charity before contributing to it. For instance if you want to get into the nitty gritty detail of how much of their donations a charity spends, you can usually Google search the charity’s name plus “IRS Form 990.” The IRS Form 990 is a tax document that charities must file and is available for public viewing; it details many salient points about a charity’s financial practices as well as their handling of tax exemption.

For a less technical approach, you could follow a number of organizations that monitor charities to make sure that they’re sticking to their goals and mission statements. Two such organizations that come to mind are Charity Watch and Givewell.org. Both organizations have put a lot of time into giving people the most detailed information on charities of all types, from the biggest organizations out there to those that only operate out of one city or town. These are great resources for staying informed on which charities are safe to send your donations and those that you should avoid.

What research do you do before donating to charity? Have you ever encountered a charitable organization whose practices seemed suspicious to you? Let me know!

Katheryn Rivas is freelance writer and blogger who dedicates her time to discovering the latest online education trends. When she's not writing, she can be found playing softball or reading a good book. She encourages your comments at katherynrivas87@gmail.com.