The worst charities: Get information before you make a donation

Make sure your donations are actually going where you want them to.

Americans give generously. We give more to charity per capita than any other developed nation; more than $200 billion in 2011. But all that money may not be going where we think. The Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting have released a list of "America's Worst Charities," 50 organizations that raised billions of dollars, but gave hardly any of it to the people who need it. In some cases, these charities gave no money at all. Instead, much of the money went to paying fundraising firms -- those people who bombard us with calls and direct mail. Kendall Taggart is a data reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

"I think for a lot of these groups that are using outside fundraisers, it's an easy way to cover their own salaries and there's very little regulation to making sure that they follow through on the promises that they've made to donors," says Taggart.

Taggart says these charities provide help to the causes they are supposed to support with what's called "gifts in kind" -- things like medical supplies that they ship overseas. The problem is that there's no way to verify the value of those goods, so they can be used to inflate a charity's revenue on the books and what it looks like they're doing in terms of programs.

"The top of our list is an organization called Kid's Wish Network. They operate out of a metal warehouse in Holiday, Fla. Over the past decade they've raised millions of dollars. Of that, about 80 percent -- $110 million -- has gone to professional solicitors, $4.8 million has gone to the charity's founder and his consulting firm, and only $0.03 of every $1 that they've raised has actually spent directly on helping kids," says Taggart. "Most of the causes are popular causes that appeal to donors and may sound like a more well-known group."

To make sure that you're sending your money to good places, Taggart says there are many resources to research cahrities online.

The top 10 worst U.S. charities:

See the full list

Want to evaluate a charity you want to donate to? Check out these helpful websites:
Charity Navigator

"Some basic steps that people can take if they get a phone call at home is to find out exactly who's calling, where their donation will go, what they'll do with your money and, if you get a call, know that there's a cost and they -- if you ask -- need to tell you what that cost is, whether the telemarketer is going to take $0.80 or $0.90 or that kind of thing," says Taggart.

She says you should ask the question: "How much of my donation is going to go to the charity versus your professional firm?" One last piece of advice: some watchdog groups say that if you receive a phone call asking for a donation, you should hang up; the best way to make sure that your money is going where you want it to go is to give directly.

About the author

Adriene Hill is a senior multimedia reporter for the Marketplace sustainability desk, with a focus on consumer issues and the individual relationship to sustainability and the environment.
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There are so many wonderful local charities you can donate to

excellent article Money Marketplace! wish you would do a follow up on this, interview these npos and find out what government agency should be doing their job to correct their ways or shut them down

My standard response to phone solicitors. "I do not give to charities that solicit by phone." When the script talk continues I say bye and hangup. My standard response to mail solicitors. Recycling.

For some strange reason I can't see why I'd want an organization to deduct 5% + .50 of my donation for the privilege of passing the balance to my desired charity. For a year end consolidated statement of contributions? To hide my name & address? Because it supplies links to analytic organizations like Charity Navigator? Please. Nor did I see any info on salaries on either givalike or donatic. I'll think pass, Ben.

Every day there is a story about robbing the middle class to provide wealth for a privileged few. Banks, after crashing the housing market, sucking billions out of people's pockets, are finessing the refinancing market to improve their profits. Beef has soared over four dollars. Gasoline, whose price depends upon the strength of the profiteer manipulating the market, has now gone over four dollars a gallon here in the Midwest. 401k accounts, a method to minimize liability for businesses, are being sucked dry with fees, so that there is less to invest and grow. After the Sandy Hook massacre, there was a raw, unfettered example of Congressional corruption. Our children are murdered and the highly educated members of Congress are threatened by the gun lobby, refusing to change the gun laws so they can be re-elected. Our country is rife with financial predators and every day someone on the radio says the market is improving. Why do we lie to ourselves and let the financial flesh be torn from our bones?

The advice to ask the charity (when you get a telephone solicitation) about how much of the donation goes to fund raising and how much to programs is a bit simplistic. Those phone room people are trained to tell you that 100% goes to programs, a plain old fat lie. My standard answer to a phone solicitation is to tell them to send me the charity's financial statement in the mail, and if I find it satisfactory, I will send them a check. So far, I have never received a statement in the mail.

Thanks for bringing this to your readers' attention. I'd also like to mention one other resource that people may find valuable: http://Givalike.org.

At Givalike, we make giving easier by offering an aggregated and summarized view of information consolidated from over a dozen different sources. We also provide direct links to reporting organizations like GuideStar, the Nation Center for Charity Statistics, and Charity Navigator.

And, in addition to the 50 organizations identified here, we've flagged hundreds of other questionable nonprofits.

Feedback and suggestions are greatly appreciated -- we're always trying to make giving even easier.

Ben Katz, CEO

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