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Where browsers meet benevolence

Point-and-click giving grows quickly, but experts counsel donor caution.

By Guy Halverson Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 4, 2000



NEW YORK

Increasingly, charitable giving can mean just directing your computer browser to the Web site of a favorite charity.

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Cases in point: the Salvation Army at www.salvationarmy.org, or the American Red Cross at www.redcross.org, or Girls and Boys Town at www.boystown.org. (One site that contains links to hundreds of charity Web sites: The Index of National Charities www.charitablechoices.org.)

By logging on to a charity Web site, you can find up-to-date news and information about the group's activities, plus ways to make a contribution online.

If there is any major trend regarding the direction of charitable giving in the US, the shift to the Internet would have to be towards the top of the class, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. Countless individuals are discovering that they prefer to give online, he says.

And although total dollar amounts are still relatively minuscule over the Net - about 1 percent of total giving in the US - the thrust is definitely upward, he says.

The Net, in fact, may be revolutionizing charitable giving, says Bennett Weiner, an official with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, in Arlington, Va.

Not only can you "make direct contact with a charity" - devoid of having to go through a middleman, or wait on the mail - but also just about everything you need to know about the mission, costs, and dollar outlays of that charity is often "immediately accessible," he says.

That's not all. Some online shopping sites will make donations to selected charities based on your purchases. With up to $10 billion in projected online shopping this holiday season, that can add up. Moreover, some sites will direct you to other sites that offer special donations, such as Stargiving.com (www.stargiving.com).

Still, despite the swirl of charitable Web ventures - or rather, precisely because of that change - a person needs to be very careful when contributing online, says Mr. Weiner. Since there are now roughly 700,000 charitable and nonprofit organizations in the US, ranging from very small, little-known concerns to large, well-publicized entities, it is vital to know as much about how the charity operates as possible, Weiner says.

Before donating to a charity over the Internet, Weiner suggests you do some basic research on the organization. Go to such sites as GuideStar, (www.guidestar.com) and the Internet Non-Profit Center (www.nonprofits.org). They will provide statistical background information on most major charities.

Start by checking out the expense ratio of the charity, he says. Total expenses should be less than 10 percent of the total amount taken in by the charity.

Privacy issues are also crucial. "Look for evidence of a privacy policy," Weiner says. There should be some type of reference on the home page. The policy, he says, "should be clearly disclosed." Find out if the charity is providing information about its donors to third parties. Is the information being sold or shared? Are there steps you can take to prevent misuse?

In addition, make certain the charity uses an up-to-date encryption system for your donations. When you type in financial information, there should be notification that you are in a secure zone. Remember, you are often providing keys to your financial identity by donating to a charity - information such as your Social Security number, your checking- or savings-account numbers, or other tax-related information.

Giving to a charity can be special, says Weiner. But if you do it online, take all possible precautions to make certain that your experience proves rewarding, and not injurious.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society