THE message from charities watchdogs this season is: Give, but give intelligently. ``Let your heart motivate you, but use your head,'' says Daniel Borochoff, analyst with the National Charities Information Bureau (NCIB) in New York, which evaluates nonprofit organizations for contributors.
Now, more than ever, charities and nonprofits are using numerous techniques to get their word out - sometimes tug at your heart strings - and solicit donations. From direct mail and telemarketing to affinity credit cards and slick advertising, many fund-raising techniques have gone the way of big business.
Some local Salvation Army offices, for example, will take the unusual step of sending out fund-raising letters in January.
In addition, the sheer number of nonprofit organizations has ballooned: There are more than a million nonprofits, says Joanne Hayes, president of the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Inc. (AAFRC). ``That's real growth,'' since the beginning of the decade, when there were a couple 100,000, she says.
Although the AAFRC estimates less than 1 percent of all contributions to nonprofits go to fraud, many contributors don't know exactly how their dollars will be spent.
It's safe to say that Americans who do not consider where there money is going when they give misspend billions of dollars, says Philip English Mackey author of ``The Giver's Guide.'' Many people are wising up, but they let their guard down, Mr. Mackey says. ``It's the all-American, frozen-food way: Someone calls up and you say, `OK, I'll give you 10 bucks.' It's a very cheap and sloppy way to support a charity.''
This season, many people want to support American service people in the Persian Gulf, says Margaret Bower, assistant director of communications with the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc.
One charity, however, has been under scrutiny for its highly publicized Christmas-gift packs sent to American service people overseas. This is one example of why people should investigate a charity they wish to support before writing out the check, says Mr. Borochoff.
``If people do their homework and understand where their money is going and how it's being used ... they're being more responsive to our concerns and society's needs,'' says Howard Gershen, author of ``A Guide for Giving.''
Suggested tips from charities watchdogs, authors, and consumer advocates include:
Know whom you're giving to. Some organizations sound alike.
Ask what percentage of your donation will go to the group's program, what percentage will pay for fund raising.
Request some printed material about the organization, such as an annual report. Better still, check with a watchdog group, such as the NCIB or the Better Business Bureau.
Ask what the charities have accomplished recently.
Make sure you understand and agree with the group's philosophy and program.
Ask whether the contribution is tax deductible.
Contribute by check and make it out to the charity or nonprofit, never to the person asking you for money.
Most important, consider volunteering.
``Take an active, not passive, approach to giving,'' advises Mackey. ``Ask yourself what really matters to you in the world, then figure out who is doing work in the field that you approve of, and then do some comparative shopping.... It gives you the moral standing.''