In the Spirit of the Holidays: Donating to Charities and Avoiding Scams

Wreath A Giving Spirit

Once upon a time, I volunteered, freely giving of my time and money, as much as possible. I've helped build a Habitat for Humanity home; worked with those in need of basic necessities; sold (and bought) stuff to raise money for homeless pets; chaired committees, manned booths, stuffed envelopes, served meals and made phone calls all in the name of charity. And I enjoyed it.

Then, I gave birth…twice, and suddenly all of my time and money were consumed by these little beings. I tell myself that once my own little charities are in school I will have time to once again give to others. But in the meantime there are still some ways I can give without breaking the bank or stretching my already overly full schedule.

The List

There's certainly no shortage of need in this world. Everywhere you look, someone is in need of something. It could be a simple need or a "pie in the sky" request. It could be a need across the street or across the world.

I like to give locally most of the time. I know there are many needs in my metro area. I came up with a list of ways and places you can easily give, no matter where you live:

12 Ways to Give in Your Community

  1. Church. I don't mean to give to a general fund or building fund, etc., but at my church there's a fund that goes directly to an organization called St. Vincent de Paul and that money goes straight to those in need of basic necessities. Find out if your church has a similar program or click to find a St. Vincent de Paul organization near you.
  2. Your Child's Daycare or School. I know my Darling Boys' preschool has recently lost several grants due to lack of funding and the classrooms always have lists of needs for projects and play. Some schools might even keep lists of basic needs for students or collect clothes or coats that could be anonymously given to students.
  3. Food Banks. At this time of economic struggle many households will be lacking in food this winter. A need that is often overlooked is that of kids who may have to go without breakfast and/or lunch while school is out for holiday because those families generally depend on free or reduced rate meals for the kids while they're at school.
  4. Toys for Tots. These highly recognizable boxes are located in many locations. Just this last week, we saw drop off boxes where the boys get their hair cut and at our pets' veterinary office. This is an annual favorite of ours because the boys enjoy picking the toys to give.
  5. An Angel Giving Tree. You are able to choose a particular child who has a particular wish for a toy and/or clothing. Last year, I chose a local angel online, picked the gift, paid for it and shipped it all from JCPenney.com on behalf of the Salvation Army. You can choose a boy or girl, an age and location, which can be local. Here is the link for that site: Salvation Army Angel Giving Trees.
  6. Homeless Shelters. There are many needs at this time of year, especially in the colder regions. It's downright deadly to sleep outside here in Minnesota. This week our temperatures will struggle to get above zero, with wind chills plunging to -20 on some nights. But even if you live where it's warmer, the shelters tend to have an influx of people with basic needs at this time of year since those who can leave the colder areas travel to the warmer regions.
  7. Humane Societies. Animal shelters are always in need of volunteers to help with administrative, janitorial or grooming duties, not to mention petters, snugglers and walkers. They also usually have long donation request lists.
  8. Electric/Gas Companies. Yes, I know this might be the last place you would like to give extra money, but most electric and gas companies have a fund for those who, due to loss of income or illness or other event, cannot pay their electric and/or gas bills through the winter months. Here in Minnesota and other cold weather states, the electric and gas companies are prohibited from disconnecting these vital services during the winter months.
  9. Police Stations/Fire Stations. Police and Firefighters collect stuffed bears for kids. The  officers keep these bears in their vehicles to give to children who are affected by a fire, domestic dispute, child abuse, etc.
  10. A neighbor or acquaintance who is elderly, unemployed, suffering an illness or injury, new to the community, a veteran, etc. Take over some cookies, a meal, a card, a gift, a cup of coffee or just go over and chat. You could make someone's day. It's a big deal to make someone feel cared for and loved.
  11. A local scholarship fund or one for a student from your alma mater: high school, undergrad or grad levels. Education costs continue to soar. There are many scholarship funds set up to honor a graduate of a school who died tragically; at a young age; or led a distinguished or prosperous life, etc. Check with any particular school you wish for details about such funds and how to donate to it.
  12. Homeless/Jobless People Encountered Along Your Way. Keep granola bars, cracker packets or other packaged snacks in your vehicle or in your purse, brief case or backpack along with small gift cards to fast food restaurants or coffee shops to hand to homeless, jobless or otherwise desperate people you may encounter. This last point relates more to those living and/or working in metro areas.

A charitable gift doesn't have to be a large sum of money. Giving doesn't have to involve money at all. In fact, the person donating time and energy will get more from his or her time spent doing good than simply writing a check.

Avoid Getting Scammed

I used to worry about giving something to a person standing out on the corner with a sign. What if he or she used the money for drugs or alcohol or gambling or other vice? A friend recently told me, "When you give, it's from the heart. You don't have to worry how your gift is used when your intention is to offer help." And I agree with that, but at the same time there are some things to watch out for when contacted by phone, email or mail to ensure you aren't the victim of a scam.

If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't true. MSNBC.com recently published a list of the 12 Cyber Scams of Christmas. This information is a great reminder to use caution while shopping online for good deals, opening and clicking on links in email, and using personal information online to purchase, etc.

The Educated Giver

According to Mary Pilon from the Wall Street Journal, "There are two forms donors should request from charities before writing a check: the federal Form 990 and a charity's annual financial statement, which lay out assets, liabilities and the amount spent on fund-raising and programs related to a group's mission. Both are filed annually." You can either request the information from the charity organization or check out a site like Charity Navigator.

Charity Navigator has evaluated over 5,500 of the largest charities in the country. You can also find great tips about information to get before donating, how to handle a phone solicitor calling for a charity, etc.

In that same WSJ article, Mr. Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, is quoted as saying, "Donors should look beyond financial statements to judge a charity's effectiveness. Solely focusing on financial ratios provides in some cases a false positive." So, in the end, it's a combination of how the charitable organization uses its finances and how well it serves its purpose. Do the research and then go with your gut feeling.

The Scoop

Who can you trust? It's hard to know. Just last week, the Minnesota Attorney General's Office filed suit against Discover card for scamming its cardholders out of millions of dollars with deceptive telemarketing. Ironically, the lawsuit's charge alleges that Discover fraudulently enrolled thousands of consumers into financial products meant to protect consumers against credit card fraud. Not that I would expect any of you savvy people to trust a credit card company. Even still, is it possible to be cautious, yet giving?

In the giving mood right now? Please give me your thoughts about charitable donations or anything else that strikes you. On Wednesday, I will post tips for raising charitable kids in our greedy society. Over and out…

Anna

You might also like:

Our Comfortable Connection: The Information You Post Online Could Be Used Against You

Black Friday Temptations: U.S. Toy Safety Standards

Stand in the Place Where You Live, Think About the Earth and Wonder Why You Haven’t Before

www.MotherlyLaw.com

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