When Money is Another Way to Care

Monday, February 6, 2012

Big-eyed, starving orphans from far-away lands. Tornado victims from nearby towns. Homeless men and women without hope. So many causes to choose from.

As the mailman delivers the contribution statements and receipts I need for tax purposes, I notice that some of the causes I used to give to aren't represented this year, and my giving to others has decreased. I wish that weren't the case, but with a reduced income since my retirement, I have had to make some tough choices.

No one can give to every cause that tugs at his or her heart. So how do we choose among them?

Many people contribute to organizations and causes that touch their lives. A widow may give to the local hospice organization that provided emotional support when her husband was dying. A cancer survivor may give to a national organization that funds cancer research and education.

People also contribute to organizations and causes that touch their hearts. Someone who has never known hunger may give to a food pantry. And someone who has never been out of the United States may give to foreign missions.

Choosing a cause or causes is only the first step when giving to national and international organizations. There are a number of groups that fund cancer research, for example. So how does someone narrow it down to one?

When considering charities with similar goals, it helps to ask each for a copy of its annual report. The annual report should describe what the organization does and provide a breakdown on how it spends its money. Two cancer organizations may fund both research and educational efforts, but one may spend the majority of its funds for research while the other spends a larger percentage on education. A person more interested in funding research to find a cure might choose the first, while someone more interested in educating the public on prevention and early detection might give to the second.

The amount the charity spends on its programs is also a consideration. The Better Business Bureau's Standards for Charity Accountability suggest that at least 65% of a charity's expenditures should go towards its programs rather than for administration and fundraising. Organizations that rely heavily on volunteers often dedicate an even larger percentage to their programs.

Most charities are required to file Form 990 with the IRS. If the annual report does not provide the information you need, the organization's most recent Form 990 and some simple math will show how much the charity spent on its programs that year. Small charities and some religious organizations are not required to file Form 990, however.

If you itemize deductions, you need to know whether the contribution is tax deductible. Just because an organization is tax exempt does not mean that your contributions are tax deductible. If an organization's primary purpose is to influence legislation, for example, you cannot write off your contributions. You may still want to contribute, but make sure you know whether your gift is tax-deductible before preparing your taxes.

The Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection publishes a fact sheet called "Charitable Donations: Give or Take?" that provides additional tips for checking out a charity before contributing. The fact sheet is available online at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/telemarketing/tel01.shtm.

I'd like to give money to every worthy cause that comes calling, but that isn't practical if I want to eat. And even if I gave everything I have, it wouldn't be enough. So I select a few causes and organizations that touch my life and a few more that touch my heart.

Because it's all about making choices.

1 comment:

Loree Huebner said...

My grandmother always said, "You tend a few fence posts, and you tend them well."

I have a few charities and causes that touch my heart, and I give to those.

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