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.
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?
Guidelines the NIB and PAS use to rate charities, and those the United Way uses to screen affiliates, are similar. They include standards for disclosure, percentage of funds spent on administration, and collection and use of funds. Examples of some of the standards include the requirement that annual reports be verified with audits by independent accountants, that overhead not exceed 50 percent of the funds raised (the United Way sets its requirement at a maximum of 25 percent), and that charitable organizations have governing bodies that are independent of the operating staff.
NIB and PAS ratings list a handful of organizations that meet their criteria, as well as those that don't and those that refuse to submit information for the rating. However, these ratings only list a few thousand out of the nation's 300, 000 non-profit organizations.
For example, the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. solicits charity. But it doesn't submit a report to either the PAS or NIB. Officials with the center explain that because the operation is directly accountable to Congress, separate reporting to outside agencies isn't necessary, and that nondisclosure to these groups should not necessarily cast doubt on an organization's reputation.
These financial and accountability criteria are generally accepted standards in the philanthropic community and can be used by donors to get a thumbnail sketch of a charity. But they are aimed at large, nationwide groups that have a big business approach to charity, explains Timothy Saasta, assistant director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
''You can overemphasize measures of financial management,'' says Mr. Saasta. While a PAS survey of 800 individual donors showed 84 percent believed that no less than 70 percent of their contribution should be spent on program services, Saasta and even officials in the more widely known charitable organizations agree this may be an unrealistic expectation. On the average, they say, charities spend somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of their income on services.
A small local charity, says Saasta, might be unable to afford the cost of an independent auditor for its annual reports. Further, depending on the nature of the services the group offers and especially if the group is just starting out, it might take a disproportionate amount for administrative costs, he says. This is a good reason, he adds, for donors to take a more traditional approach - that is, getting involved at the community level to better see how a charity is run.
''Volunteer, go to functions, and see how well organized the group is and what kind of involvement there is,'' explains Saasta.
Here are some generally accepted guidelines for consumers:
* Don't be afraid to ask questions. If a solicitor can't answer the questions you ask, he will gladly get the answers and return if he is from a legitimate group, says Helen O'Rourke of PAS.
* Be wary of emotional appeals. Any request for money that ''brings tears to your eyes'' - starving children or victims of disease - should be cross-checked for veracity, advises PAS literature. Further, be certain that what an agency purports to do in its literature is substantiated by its annual report.
* Beware of slick promotional materials. They are costly and could be a giveaway to unacceptable financial priorities, says Saasta.
* Always make contributions by checks made out to the charity, not the individual collecting the donation.
* Don't be fooled by names that look impressive or closely resemble the name of a well-known organization.
* Watch out for mail appeals disguised as bills or invoices. They should not demand payment for unordered merchandise such as key rings, stamps, or seals. You're under no obligation to pay for these things.
* When asked to buy candy, magazines, or tickets to a benefit dinner or show, be sure to ask what the charity's share will be. You might choose not to donate if the share is too small. Further, you can only claim as a tax deduction that portion of the contribution that directly benefits the charity.
* Check out the organization with your local Better Business Bureau or the NIB. The PAS (1515 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209, 703-276-0133) and NIB ( 419 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016, 212-532-8595) offer information and up to three free reports on certain organizations.