Christmas is a special time for giving, as dozens of charities remind us frequently these days. Although the holidays are the busiest time of the year for soliciting charitable contributions, the process goes on year-round. Americans gave more than $60 billion to charities last year, the American Association of Fund Raising Counsel reports. This includes donations from corporations and foundations.
It also includes individuals, who give about 2 percent of their pretax income. Because individuals do not have the experience and resources to do proper research, they are more likely to be the chosen victims of a ''charity'' that is fraudulent, or one that spends too much money on administration and fund-raising costs.
Fortunately, that research is not hard to do.
One step, says Elizabeth Doherty, director of the Philanthropic Advisory Service (PAS), a branch of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is to ask for literature or brochures, especially if the solicitor asking for your money is representing a group you have never hear' of. FO example, she says, people may be asked over the phone for a donation to some group promising to feed hungry children overseas. The caller will describe the urgency of the situation and ask people to send a check immediately.
Don't. The cause may sound worthwhile, but if you are not familiar with the organization and thus confident that your donation will be used properly, ask the phone solicitor to send a brochure and any other literature he has. After you get it, your local Better Business Bureau may have information on the organization. If it doesn't, you can get up to three free reports on specific charities by sending a post card to the National Information Bureau, 419 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. The NIB is one of those groups that set standards for charities used by corporations and foundations. You can also use that post card to ask for its free ''Wise Giving Guide,'' which lists the groups that meet its standards.
PAS also has a list of organizations that do and do not meet its standards, and you can get a copy by sending $1 and a stamped, self-addressed business envelope to Philanthropic Advisory Service, 1515 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Va. 22209. It will also give specific reports on up to three groups.
You may want to ask what percentage of your donation will actually go to the project or the people in need. At PAS, Ms. Doherty says, the minimum acceptable standard is about 50 percent, although this can vary depending in part on how well known the charity is. A better-known, well-managed group should not have to spend so much on fund-raising.
The NIB, says assistant director Marjorie Heitbrink, has set a standard of 70 percent. This tougher stand has caused some controversy, particularly among newer, though quite legitimate, groups that are trying to replace assistance formerly provided by the federal government.
In addition, some states have their own standards for how much of your dollar goes to the project. You can ask the solicitor if the group meets this standard and then contact the state attorney general's office or a local consumer affairs official to find out what the standard, if any, is.
If the solicitor is operating door to door, ask for some kind of identification to show he is authorized to collect for this group. He should also be able to give you some literature on the charity.
Unless you're being asked for a very small donation, say, a dollar or less, don't give cash. A check provides a record that can be used in case of fraud and as proof of the donation for tax purposes. Do not make out the check to the solicitor; make it out to the organization.
No matter how much you give, the donation may not be as costly as it seems. If you are in the 50-percent tax bracket, half the contribution is deductible from your federal income taxes; in the 30-percent bracket, 30 percent is deductible. And by pushing Christmastime giving, the charities are helping you make the donation in the year that is of greatest advantage to you at tax-filing time next April 15. If you need more deductions this year, you can make the contribution before New Year's. But if the deduction makes more sense for you next year, you can make a pledge now and pay it in 1984.
Contributions are deductible in the year of payment. This means that if you pay by check, it counts in the year you mail the check; if you put the donation on a bank card, it counts in the year the charge is made, not the year you pay the bill.
You should also make sure the organization asking for your money really does have tax-deductible status. Some are tax-exempt, but because they may do more lobbying for some cause than supporting noble works, contributions to them are not deductible from your taxes. Generally, the Internal Revenue Service gives tax-deductible status to religious, charitable, educational, and scientific testing and research organizations. It does not count civic leagues, business organizations, social clubs, chambers of commerce, or political groups.
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