Every Christmas and, in fact, most of the year, I participate in an assortment of social service projects. I've organized everything from small specific needs programs to citywide disaster recovery efforts. That's not necessarily part of my role as a professional bureaucrat, but more like my self imposed role as a member of the human race. This will sound false and pretentious to some, but I genuinely care about people. There, I said it. Not only that, my friends care about people. My co-workers care about people and even my kids care about people.
Having said all that --
THE GOOD -- 'tis the season to be charitable.
THE BAD -- 'tis the season to be swindled.
Friends, give until it hurts but be very careful where you send your money and who you buy Angel Tree, Santa Cop, or Christmas Wish gifts for. Make sure whatever cause, family, program, or event you contribute to can provide you with accountability.
I'm sorry to say that Christmas provides the ideal opportunity for tender hearts and deep pockets to be taken advantage of. Sometimes the cost of serving many is being bled by a few. That's just the way it goes. But there's a big fat line between a few crafty people milking the system and a program that is a downright scam or enables exploitation by its ineffectiveness.
Legitimate programs do not object to questions. They know that confidant donors recruit other donors. While you probably don't need to research the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots and other familiar programs, the ones closer to your own home may not be so well known. And, people may POSE as Salvation Army or Toys for Tots but have no affiliation with them.
So, ask questions!
ORGANIZATIONS - look them up online, check with the Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce. Is it a 501(c)3? How long has it been around? How much of your money goes to pay administrative costs? Where do surplus toys go? Are they checking with other organizations to see if their families are on multiple angel trees or getting help from other programs?
* tax deductible charitable organizations are listed with the IRS. Look them up on the IRS websiteINDIVIDUALS - if you don't know them personally, ask for identification and references and then follow up. Find out where and how the funds are set up and dispersed and ask for financial reports. Better yet, volunteer to help with your time and labor and see how they respond. If an individual is running a food pantry, toy drive or clothes closet, they will usually have a local church or chapter of an organization that can back them up.
* charities are required to to file a Form 990 and provide it to anyone when requested (churches are exempt from this)
* tax I.D. numbers and tax exemption certificates are not proof of charities who collect tax deductible contributions.
EMAIL DONATIONS - just don't do it. Reputable organizations do not usually solicit donations from individual consumers by e-mail. Links in unsolicited e-mails to access the web sites of charitable organizations are usually bogus.
PHONE SOLICITATIONS - don't cave in to high pressure tactics. Many organizations use a semi-legitimate sounding name or one that closely resembles the real thing and play on your desire to help widows or children born with birth defects and diseases. Ask for a call back number and tell them you will get back to them as soon as you verify who they are with the IRS or with your state's attorney general's office. Or, tell them you will mail a check to the corporate office. If that doesn't work for them, hang up. "Now or never" deals are always a scam.
DOOR TO DOOR - don't give money or toys to kids. Don't. If they are collecting canned foods, blankets, or eyeglasses, you can probably give with confidence. But even if they're lying to get free canned foods, blankets, or eyeglasses, well, they probably need the stuff and you ought to give it to them anyway. It's not like they are going to sell your green beans on eBay. If adults solicit for a cause like March of Dimes or Muscular Dystrophy, they will have an official prepaid donation envelope they can leave with you that you can mail at your leisure AFTER you have checked the address. Again, "now or never" deals are always a scam.
ONLINE AUCTIONS - you are dealing with a nameless, faceless person and trusting that they really will give a portion of their sales to another organization. Enough said.
STREET SOLICITORS - fireman boots are frequent in Texas and the Shreiners often collect at intersections for the children's hospital. There's not much time at a traffic signal to ask for i.d. or to see a permit so you pretty much just have to go with your gut on these. But if the collection cans are crudely made and don't have a lock on it or the individual soliciting doesn't appear to have a posse of co-solicitors on every other corner, save your change and drop in the salvation army bucket at the local Walmart.
Bottom line: if you live every day for yourself alone and do nothing at all for your fellow man, yours is a shallow life. But don't be a sucker. There are far too many people who genuinely need your help to waste your money on those who don't.
Federal Trade Commission Charity Checklist