InSITE--Careful Giving

You see the pleas all the time, give a few dollars a month to help sick kids, or write a check to feed a family. So how do you know who's legit and who's just out for a buck? Turn to a familiar place, now on the Internet, and do your homework. The Better Business Bureau. They're updating their presence on the 'Web with a catchy slogan that's good advice. "Investigate before you donate." In typical BBB fashion, they haven't yet put up big red flags about bad charities, but they do give you information to help you decide if you want to donate.

If you're serious about checking a charity, start with those standards. They're a little wordy, obviously written for, and by, lawyers. But they set the tone for the rest of the information. When you're done with that, check out the alphabetical list of hundreds of charities competing for your hard-earned cash. I first picked a name we all know well, the American Red Cross. They list basic information about the charity, location, and general purpose. But the next, and possibly most important thing, is the line "...the American Red Cross meets the CBBB standards." They passed the test. You could stop there, but remember there have been a few controversies over the years about things Red Cross does. This site lists some of the concerns, and how the Red Cross is addressing them. For my money, this is one of the most important sections. Any charity can have problems, but if they're very publicly admitting, and explaining the changes, I'm more impressed.

Let's take a look at another you know. United Way. They are not all created equal, but this gives a good look at the national picture. It meets the standards, and again, is working to improve on that. But scroll down for the solid information. You'll see some pretty hefty numbers on what United Way spends to spread the word and collect money. The top official's salary, which in this case is half a million dollars. People are always questioning those numbers, and rightly so. Keep going down for some perspective. The pie chart is a graphic example. Only 5% of the money United Way takes in goes to administration. Ninety-five cents of every dollar you donate goes to the programs United Way supports.

Take a look at another. Greenpeace. For some reason, they won't answer the questions, won't divulge where the money's coming from or where it's going. The BBB doesn't say don't donate, they just say decide for yourself.

Here's an easier decision. The American Sheriff's Association. Problems from the start. It does not meet the BBB criteria, and there are lots of reasons why. Skim through them. There's even a mention of legal action against them. But here's a real problem. That pie chart? This association spent 11% of donations on administration, 88% on collecting more money, and only 1% on the programs they set out to do. One penny on every dollar donated.

You may never get a call from them in Texas, but check out a long list of tips on the kind of calls and mailings we all get asking for money, and make sure before you give, you know who you're giving to, and that you're giving so it helps.