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What to know before donating to a charity

Blog about Greyhound Friends

Learn more about the issues that animal rescue law enforcement and state agencies uncovered about the greyhound adoption group Greyhound Friends in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Greyhound Friends is closed but is trying to obtain a new kennel license, despite recent reports that they neglected sick and injured dogs.

What to know before donating to a charity

Stephen Bassignani

Greyhound Friends board member John Dumas leads organization blasted by Attorney General

The Attorney General’s investigation into Greyhound Friends made us stop and think: What do we really know about the charities we donate to? 

According to Giving USA: The Annual Report of Philanthropy, Americans donated more than $390 billion to charities last year — but how can we make sure we’re donating wisely? If you’re like many of us, you probably support charities with a mission that resonates with you, but you may not do a lot of due diligence before making a donation. We checked in with several consumer advocacy organizations to get answers to frequently asked questions about charitable donations and how to make sure they're well spent.

How can I learn about a charity before I make a donation?

Do your research. In addition to doing a google search of the charity, check out the charity's website and social media pages. Learn about not just their mission and goals but how they measure themselves against their goals. For example, some charities will list their key accomplishments and how well they’re performing against those goals.

Next, visit charity information sites such as:

·      GuideStar – An information service specializing in reporting on U.S. nonprofit organizations. As of last year, the service reported on 2.5 million nonprofit organizations.

·      Charity Navigator – America’s largest independent charity evaluator, this organization offers free ratings on the financial health, accountability, and transparency of thousands of charities.

·      CharityWatch – A charity watchdog group and information service. CharityWatch generally evaluates large charities that receive $1 million or more of public support annually, are of interest to donors nationally, and have been in existence for at least three years.

I get a lot of calls to donate to charities. Is donating by phone safe?

The Massachusetts Attorney General issued a report about predatory telemarketing firms that make calls for charities -- but they keep the majority of the donated money for themselves. Telemarketing firm All Pro Productions, for example, keeps roughly four out of every five dollars raised by phone for charities such as New England Veterans Liberty House. (We also discovered that All Pro Productions' CEO is John Dumas, who is a Greyhound Friends board member.)

The Massachusetts Attorney General recommends asking telemarketers what percentage of your donation will go directly to the charity. They are required to have this information and to disclose it when asked. If you’re interested in supporting the cause, it's best to make a donation to the charity directly instead of through their telemarketing firm, or to ask the telemarketer to mail you a donation request. That is generally safer than giving them your credit card number over the phone. 

How do I know if donating online is safe?

·      Verify the organization’s tax exempt status. Don’t assume that because a group has a “org” in its website address or calls itself a nonprofit that they are one. Sadly, there are plenty of people who say false or misleading things online to try and get your money. Visit the IRS’s exempt organization’s web page to check the charity’s eligibility to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

·      Look into the security of the charity’s online donations. Before sharing your credit card information, make sure the charity uses encryption technology to safeguard your financial data. First, check the address bar on the donation page. The website address on the address bar should begin with “https”. The “s” in the address tells you that the information is encrypted and should be able to be send securely. You can also see encryption badges like VeriSign on the charity's donation page. 

·      Read the charity’s privacy policy. Before sharing any personal information, find out if the charity sells or exchanges donor information with other organizations. If so, ask if they have an option for you to opt out of having your information shared.

How do I know if my donor money is being used responsibly?

Look for charities that readily share what their expenses are, how donor money is spent, and how they're performing in relation to their stated goals. Here are a few examples. (We’re not making endorsements, but just sharing examples).

Dakin Humane Society shares a breakdown of its animal intake and adoption statistics as well as its audited financial statements, and encourages donors to contact their Director of Finance and Administration with additional questions. Likewise, Petco Foundation posts its annual report, audited financials, and other financial information on its website, along with details about the results of specific programs. The American Heart Association also provides a great deal of information, including pie charts showing the breakdown of spending, as well as research spending data, and comparisons to other national health agencies.

For more advice on charitable giving, see the tip sheet from the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs & Business Regulation or Charity Navigator’s Five Steps to Informed Giving.

 Photo: M. Zoolek