UNT expert gives advice on identifying nonprofits for charitable giving
Along with advertisements and coupons from retailers hoping you’ll buy gifts from them, December’s mail usually includes requests from nonprofit organizations for end-of-year donations. While you may be tempted to respond to one of these requests by sending your credit card information or a check, how will know that your money will be legitimately used for a good cause?
Lisa Dicke, a professor in the University of North Texas College of Public Affairs and Community Service, who teaches nonprofit management classes in the college’s Department of Public Administration, has some advice. She may be contacted at 940-841-6793 (office), 940-231-2001 (cell phone) or Lisa.Dicke@unt.edu.
Before giving to a charity, Dicke says, do your homework by checking the nonprofit’s 990 form, often available online. She says nonprofits are required to file these forms each year to maintain their tax-exempt status and provide information about the charity’s finances, including the percentage used from donations for office expenses and other overhead costs, as well as the salary and benefits of the chief executive officer.
"The forms are public record and most charities post them on their websites," Dicke says. "And while you’re on the website, look for information about the charity’s recent work, special projects and volunteer opportunities. See who is on the Board of Directors. If nothing is on the website, it may be a clue that the charity is not legitimate."
Other tips from Dicke:
These websites, Dicke says, collectively provide scores and starred ratings for finances and accountability and transparency for each charity; pie charts of each charity’s budgets listing percentages spent on programs, fundraising and administrative costs; and provide side-by-side comparisons of similar charities.
●While charities that spend no more than 15 percent of their annual budgets on administrative costs are usually recommended as the best charities for giving, Dicke notes that some large organizations will have slightly higher administrative costs for more full-time staff salaries and other costs.
"On the other hand, you may find an organization with super low overhead, but the organization isn’t doing much in outreach and programs," she says. "Use your best judgement. If you know of an organization that is doing great work, don’t hesitate to give if the overhead is somewhat above 15 percent of the budget."
●Recognize that smaller and newer organizations may have chosen similar names as larger and more established organizations. Be careful to not confuse charities, and request information from telephone solicitors by mail, Dicke says, adding that some telephone requests are scams.
●Use a credit card when giving to a new charity or for one which you’ve never donated to before. "Credit cards are good because you can dispute charges," Dicke says. "When you send a check, you’re sending a lot of information about yourself that could be misused by the organization. Before listing your credit card information, check for a secure connection on the organization’s website, such as asking for a credit card’s security code."
●Donations via check should be fine once you’re established as a regular giver to a certain charity. If you want to give a large cash donation — beyond the few cents or dollars you may drop into a Salvation Army red kettle — go to the organization’s office to give in person, and ask for a receipt, Dicke says.
●Know that if you’re a regular donor to one organization, you may be put on the mailing lists of other organizations. "Charities sometimes share lists. However, you can look on the website to see if you can opt out of sharing your information," Dicke says.
●Above all, "feel good about charitable giving," she says.
"This is the time of the year that charities count on donations from the public, and if you have a passion for animals, children, the homeless or any other area, there’s usually a group that could use your support," she says.