Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2002 / 14 Teves, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

'Tis the Season... For Bad Charities?

JWR cannot endorse the activities of any of the charities included in this article. | A Salvation Army bell-ringer greets you as you schlep your grocery bags from the store to the car. When you get home, the front door jams against the pile of mass-produced charity appeals that have been shoved--with a light coating of snow--through your mail slot. As you're unpacking, the phone rings: "Would you like to give a donation to...?"

You're feeling plenty guilty. Fine, you think, let's pick a charity. But before you let a wave of Dickensian holiday spirit propel you to your checkbook, think about how you can do the most good--not just how you can feel like you've contributed. To put it bluntly, not every charity is especially charitable. Some waste your money on "overhead" costs like publicity and staff salaries--they help middle-class do-gooders more than needy people. Some use your dollar to lobby for political positions you don't support. How can you sort the Mother Theresa wheat from the bureaucratic chaff?

The first and best way to pick a good charity is best for the giver as well as for the receiver. Get to know a particular local charity well. Volunteer at a local soup kitchen, call a low-income medical clinic, ask your co-workers if they know any schools that need volunteers or donors. Take the first steps in building a relationship with a charity that will last long after the lawn reindeer have been parked in the basement. Many areas have clearinghouse-style lists that detail many of the local charities; for example, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington provides an emergency directory for the D.C. area, listing a wealth of services including food, shelter, and medical care.

Next, consider what type of charity you wish to provide. A check is the quickest way to help, but not always the best. During the Thanksgiving-to-New-Year's period, charities often receive lots of food and cash; those donations are always welcome, but consider whether you can do something that others might not be able to do. Call around to find out what items are especially needed: computers? cribs? an encyclopedia set?

Do you have time or a specialized skill to offer? If you're a lawyer, it might make more sense to use the cash to buy Aunt Sylvia a sweater for her poodle, and give a low-income legal clinic a written pledge to take on a certain number of cases or do a certain number of hours' work.

(You might want to make sure that you can spend that time on direct legal services for individual poor people--Sol Stern noted in the Autumn 1995 City Journal that New York's Legal Aid group had thrown itself into a frenzy of political lawsuits that ultimately harmed the interests of the poor.

Data entry, website creation, fundraising, carpentry, plumbing, knitting , fixing electrical wiring, babysitting, driving, translating--whatever you like to do, I can guarantee a local charity needs your services. Think creatively: If you're in a rock band, can you do a benefit show for the rape crisis center? Can you cook dinner for the pregnancy center's parenting class? And, of course, some people just want to be visited: Hospitals and senior-citizen homes are almost always seeking volunteers who offer nothing but time and an open heart.

Seek out charities that provide long-term support, help people become self-sufficient and "give back," and focus on building personal relationships. There's nothing wrong with charities that just hand out soup and sandwiches; many people need that help. But many people need much more: job skills (and help finding a job), a scholarship and tutoring, someone to listen and guide them. One thing that's surprised me in my volunteer work is how many people are isolated--they have virtually no friends or family who support their courageous struggles to be chaste, care for their children, or get an education. Because long-term, personal charity is harder, it often gets neglected, even by groups like synagogues and churches who work hard to help the needy. But as Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin said, "Charity is personal. Charity is love."

Charity is not, or shouldn't be, bureaucratic. Some charities spend so much on publicity, fundraising, or salaries that the basic purpose of helping the poor is left behind. Sometimes a legitimate charity has high overhead costs for reasons not under its control; the Special Operations Warrior Foundation , which "provides college scholarship grants, based on need, along with financial aid and educational counseling to the children of Special Operations personnel who were killed in an operational mission or training accident," has relatively high overhead costs, but its financial practices are sound. Not every charity is so healthy, however, and there are several ways of checking up on a charity if you don't have time to get to know the group personally.

There are several competing "charity watch" sites. The top three are , Charity Watch , and Charity Navigator . is a part of the Better Business Bureau, and evaluates charities based on BBB criteria. It checks to see if charities use truthful fundraising materials, provide public financial statements, and spend 35% or less of their budgets on fundraising. Charity Watch offers a list of "Tips for Giving Wisely," Charity Navigator analyzes more charities than the other two sites, but it relies solely on tax filings to hand out stars based on how financially stable a charity is and how much of its income is spent on its stated purpose. (The other two check out charities' audited financial statements and policies as well, giving a fuller picture of a charity's financial needs and practices.) Charity Navigator provides quickie "top 10 lists" like "10 of the Best Charities You've Never Heard Of," "10 Highly Paid CEOs at Low-Rated Charities," and "10 Charities in Deep Financial Trouble."

These sites can provide useful information about charities, and can send up red flags that warrant further investigation, but they're no substitute for actually speaking with particular charities and getting a good sense of their goals, their successes, and the lives they've transformed. As Kyle Waide, deputy director of Charity Navigator, told the Boston Globe, "Even a poor rating [from a charity-watch website] doesn't mean you shouldn't give to a charity. It just means you should know this before giving to them, so you have all the facts." If you use these sites, be sure to read their explanations of their rankings; the sites point out reasons that some charities may appear to have troubling numbers (say, an unusually high CEO salary) that become much less troubling on investigation (say, the salary includes royalties or a retirement package).

At Guidestar , you can do the sleuthing yourself by looking up IRS 990 (the nonprofit equivalent of a 1040) forms for charities, and taking a gander at the top five salaries in the organization. A friend who has worked in fundraising adds, "It's not very well known, but a 501(c)(3) is required by law to show you its 5 most recent documents filed with the IRS within 24 hours of a request. They can require you to come inspect it at their office, but they must share it. If an org. has five amended documents, that probably means they are hiding something by filing enough extra paperwork to conceal something on the original filing."

Finally, many Christian charities are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability .

Finally, some groups that appear to be charities are primarily political lobbying groups, and some groups that do a lot of charitable work also advocate for positions that you may not support. This isn't because these groups deceive people, but simply because some would-be donors don't take the time to learn enough about the groups. Bread for the World sounds like a charity, for example, but its slogan shows that it's actually "seeking justice for the world's hungry people by lobbying our nation's decision makers." Brian Anderson detailed some problems with Catholic Charities USA's lobbying for welfare state programs in his City Journal article, "How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul." Instead of giving to charities like UNICEF and Save the Children, which promote contraception and support groups that promote abortion, consider groups like Maternal Life International , which provides health care and natural family planning counseling for impoverished women in several African countries. Most small-scale, local charities are too busy serving the poor to rack up troubling policy positions, but if you have any concerns or questions, listen to the nagging voice of doubt and ask. It can't hurt and might help.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet