Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : December 2005

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Giving Till It Hurts
By John Anderson

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the central Gulf Coast states this past fall, donations poured in from the Red Cross and other relief agencies. Millions of dollars were received from charity websites.

Unfortunately, disasters like Katrina and last winter's tsunami in Asia attract opportunistic criminals who try to cash in on these tragedies by creating websites that look like legitimate charities and sending emotional e-mail messages to harvest cash and identities.

The Internet is still a good way to donate funds when disaster strikes. Exercise a little caution and your money will reach those who need it. Below are some tips to help you find legitimate charities and avoid getting scammed.

Choosing the Right Charity

If you're interested in supporting a specific cause – be it helping hurricane victims or giving money to your local animal organization – there is a better way to locate them than your garden-variety Google search. Actually, when you are talking about willingly parting with your money, you should definitely go through a site offering a little more information about the organization you are giving to. This will ensure that your money ends up in the hands of those you are trying to help.

A good place to start your research is at Charity Navigator (, a great site with information on nonprofit charitable organizations in the US. Not only will they help you search for the charity you are looking to support for your chosen cause, but they will provide a ranking system ranging from 0 to 4 stars. These stars are awarded based on the organization's financial performance. Charity Navigator also offers detailed figures on each charity's revenue, expenses and operating efficiencies. This can expose just how much of your money is actually reaching those in need and how much the charity is keeping for themselves to cover administrative costs such as liability insurance, accounting and legal services, administrative salaries and investment expenses.

Two charities may be supporting the same cause, but which would you choose: the charity with 10 percent administrative costs or the one with 56 percent costs? One organization listed on Charity Navigator was listed as having 77.8 percent administrative expenses! It topped Charity Navigator's top 10 list of those with the highest cost.

Before donating, spend some time at a charity's website and learn as much as you can about it, just as you would at an online store.

Bad Guys in Disguise

Some consider charities with huge administrative costs to be crooks, but you also have to watch out for actual crooks while finding a way to help those in need. The best way not to fall prey to these crooks is to recognize the tricks they use. Beware of e-mail messages from charities you've never heard of, especially if they contain urgent-sounding pleas for money. If an e-mail contains a link, don't click it; instead, type the URL yourself. Never share your personal information or credit card number until you've checked it out with a watchdog site such as GuideStar ( You can also visit the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance site (, which posts reports on individual charities, news and alerts of reported scams, complaint forms and a wealth of tips and advice for donors. Be skeptical of charities that pop up to handle relief for highly-publicized disasters or causes; check them out first before using them. They might be scammers or simply well-wishing supporters who lack fundraising experience, resulting in high administrative costs.

And finally, make sure that the site lists contact information, including a physical address, a phone number and an e-mail address. It's a good idea to contact the organization directly, if only to confirm that the addresses aren't bogus.

Handling Unwanted Mail

It feels nice to give; even though you can't go and help out directly, you are able to provide assistance to those who need it. You feel good that you've done your good deed – until you open your mailbox. Once your generous nature is revealed, chances are the same or similar organizations will also ask you for help. Even if you are successful in eliminating your name from most of the mailing lists you are on today, new lists are constantly being created. This can quickly turn in to your own personal flood of incoming direct mail. Here are some tips to stem the tide of charity mail.

bullet Decide which charities you want to support. You don't have to support all of the groups writing to you.
bullet Give larger donations to fewer organizations. A five-dollar contribution to 20 charities will place you on more lists.
bullet Write directly to each organization soliciting you to request that your name be deleted from their mailing list.
bullet If you are receiving duplicate mailings, be sure to send all the labels addressed to you showing all of the variations.
bullet The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) operates a "Mail Preference Service" which will remove your name from the mailing lists of some direct mail marketing firms (Mail Preference Service, DMA, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, New York 11735-9008)
bullet Review the privacy statement on an organization's website when donating online to see if your information is shared or sold to other organizations. Also, look for an opt-out request when entering any personal information such as your address, phone number or e-mail address.

Giving online is a quick, easy way to help others in need. Follow these tips and rest assured your contribution will get to its intended destination properly.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: December 2005

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