Charities and the holidays: a time to give -- wisely
Laden with Christmas packages, you burst out of the holiday crush at your favorite department store and make a beeline for the car. But before the ring of the cash register has faded, you're hearing another bell and feeling another tug at your pocketbook as you approach a smiling bellringer and his charity pot.Skip to next paragraph
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Conscience-stricken after a day of conspicuous consumption, you couldn't possibly walk by without donating to ''the cause.'' But the clink of your coins in the pot doesn't necessarily kindle a glow of satisfaction - because if you're anything like the average American who donates to charity, studies show you're probably wondering, ''How much for the pot, and how much for the bell ringer?''
As the balance of giving and getting tips toward the have-nots during the holiday season, questioning charitable causes - even in the name of consumer advocacy - may be viewed as a Scrooge-like attitude.
But the ubiquitous solicitation of funds by phone, through the mail, on television, with automatic paycheck deductions, and on doorsteps, demands that Americans use a little business sense in opening heart and pocketbook to the nation's 300,000 nonprofit organizations.
The American propensity to give is big. Consider some results of a recent Gallup poll: nine out of 10 Americans contributed to one or more charitable organizations in 1981, and of the $54 billion donated to non-profit organizations that year, more than $44 billion came from individual donors. Half of those donors were from families with incomes under $20,000 and in those families with incomes under $5,000, the average amount contributed was $238.
Philanthropy, which includes everything from the Arbor Day Foundation to Zero Population Growth, is a big business, and Americans can't afford to treat it as the sacred cow of American tradition, say experts who monitor the industry.
''Sometimes people are afraid to ask questions just because it's a charity (asking for money),'' says Helen O'Rourke, executive director of the Philanthropic Advisory Service (PAS), an arm of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. But, she says, with government cutbacks and the general poor state of the economy, individual donors ''are going to be deluged'' with charitable solicitation. That, she adds, is all the more reason for individuals to meet requests for donations with an amount of sophistication commensurate to their role in charitable giving - which amounts to about 80 percent of the multi-billion dollar industry.
The ''deluge'' is signaled by the 50 percent increase over last year in solicitation of corporate funds, says Ms. O'Rourke. Salvation Army bell ringers appeared with their pots a week earlier than usual in some areas of the country. And a Salvation Army official in Boston says local offices have resorted for the first time to mail and phone solicitation to meet the ''25 percent to 50 percent increase in requests'' for the organization's social welfare services.
Preliminary 1982 data from various fund-raising groups show that charitable giving rose this year, but not at a long-term rate that will keep up with slack expected to be created by government budget cuts.
Increased competition for America's charity dollar has brought a corresponding increase in donor inquiries. Both the PAS and the National Information Bureau (NIB), which rate charities on financial efficiency, report increases in donor requests for information. And the United Way of America, a trade association representing local affiliates that raise money on behalf of charities, reports a record number of inquiries from private citizens.
One average, an individual donates about $475 a year to charities and at that rate, says one observer, donors should view their gifts as they would any major investment. But of 300,000 charities to choose from, which are the best? And what does a donor need to know about a charity's operations?