How to give wisely and not get suckered this holiday season

Column: Our annual take on giving wisely to make sure your dollars do the most good

Giving Tuesday is almost here! There are many plaintive pitches and open palms. Do your best! Spread joy! However, proceed with caution.

This is a critical time for charities. The majority of donations to nonprofits in the United States are received between October and December. Giving Tuesday, the day after Thanksgiving when your heart and mind are still soft from all that turkey and pie, began more than a decade ago as a reaction to the (grotesque) consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. A Chicago theater company encouraged shoppers to donate instead of/in addition to purchasing items. In 2012, the 92nd Street Y coined the term “Giving Tuesday” in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation. And now we’re here.

They’ll contact you by phone, mail, email, and in person, at malls and outside grocery stores. If you start each entreaty with “How much of my donation goes to programs?” you’ll be well on your way to ensuring that your dollars go where you want them to go. Experts advise on how to avoid being duped.

Don’t be fooled!

Their names are similar to well-known charities and sound so angelic that you can hear harps in the distance. Don’t be taken in! These charities, for example, play on your sympathies but have received big fat “F”s from CharityWatch (most often for spending the majority of their money on salaries and fundraising, rather than their purported mission): AdoptaPlatoon Soldier Support Effort, AMVETS National Service Foundation, Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, Homes for Veterans, Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, Mutts With A Mission, National Children’s Cancer Society, Operation Finally Home, Pa

What should I do?

Spend a few minutes doing some online research. CharityWatch, Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and other organizations can show you how much a charity spends on its mission versus how much it spends on fundraising and employee salaries. Some of the worst give pennies on the dollar to those they claim to be assisting. Look for another charity if it spends less than 65% to 75% of its budget on core programs and services.

If you are approached in person or by phone and must engage in real-time, simply ask a few simple questions. How much money does it spend on programs, fundraising, and administration? Keep an eye on the 65-75 percent bar. Don’t give if they don’t know.

What is the salary of your CEO? CharityWatch highlighted the 2021 haul of Chris Cox, former executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (it was $6.2 million, including $2.4 million as part of a litigation settlement and $3.7 million for his attorneys’ fees) and the multi-million dollar paydays for hospital CEOs in its “Yikes! $1 Million Charity Salaries” piece. Of course, the latter have lives in their hands.

Is the charity truly charitable? In order for your donation to be tax-deductible, it must have an Exempt Organization number from the Internal Revenue Service. Request it. This question compelled a telemarketer to admit that the organization was for profit, and we hung up. Walk away if the organization does not have an EO number. You can check it out right now at Also available at is California’s Registry of Charitable Trusts.

Be deliberate

Plan ahead of time for your larger year-end gifts. Do you want to help people in war-torn areas? Take a stance on gun violence, the Second Amendment, refugees, or the arts? Websites such as Charity Navigator, Guidestar, and CharityWatch can help you find well-run charities.

Resist pressure

The people on the phone and in the mall want you to sign up for recurring donations right now because they are paid for it. Allow yourself plenty of time. Be wary of obnoxious telemarketers: These are usually commercial fundraisers who keep a large portion of your donation, and in some cases nearly all of it. If someone offers to send a courier to your house right now to pick up a donation check, hang up and file a complaint with the Attorney General!

Beware when shopping

Finally, as you shop online this holiday season — and according to those who track these things, 85% of us will — keep your wits about you. Scammers create knockoff websites of well-known retailers and/or sites offering popular items at ridiculously low prices. They will take your money, but you will not receive your items. Avoid clicking on shopping links on social media sites as well. Instead, enter the vendor’s URL directly into your browser.

Give your money the best chance of making an impact. This holiday season, revel in the joy of wise giving.

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