Originally created 02/29/04

How can I choose a trustworthy charity?

Q. How can I find information to gauge the likelihood that a charity will put my money to good use?

A. No matter how passionate you may feel about a particular cause, making a charitable donation can feel a bit like dropping your hard-earned money into a black hole.

Even if there's no fear of outright waste or scandal, it's hard not to wonder whether the money will be used efficiently, responsibly and in the way you might envision.

Upon request, many charities will supply key information such as a breakdown on what portion of ever dollar goes to the organization's grass roots purpose as opposed to administrative expenses, pay for top officials, fund-raising and marketing.

But rarely is such information volunteered in mailings and telephone solicitations.

As with so many questions these days, the Internet has made it far easier to fill in these information gaps, thanks to a variety of Web sites that monitor and even rate charities, and that also provide news, general tips on giving and other tools.

For would-be givers who don't use the Internet, some of the organizations that run these online services also mail printed reports in response to written requests.

Here's a rundown of some helpful Web sites, all run by nonprofit organizations:

- The BBB Wise Giving Alliance, an affiliate of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, issues reports on hundreds of nonprofit organizations with a national or international profile, as well as generalized guidelines on giving. The alliance collects information on programs, expenditures, fund-raising practices, governance and any inquiries into alleged impropriety, allowing those which meet certain standards to display a "National Charity Seal."

Printed versions of the reports can be obtained by writing the alliance (4200 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 800, Arlington, Va., 22203). For local and regional organizations, the Web site also features a link to find reports issued by local Better Business Bureaus.

- CharityNavigator.org, available online only, provides information on some 2,800 charities, grading each organization on different financial criteria with a four-star rating system. The site also features lists such as "10 Consistently Excellent Charities" and "10 of the Best Charities You've Never Heard Of," and red flags such as "10 Inefficient Fund-raisers" and "10 Highly Paid CEO's at Low-Rated Charities."

- The American Institute of Philanthropy grades about 500 national charities on a scale of A to F. The organization's Web site, CharityWatch.org, provides lists of top-rated charities with their phone numbers, while the ratings for all charities are published in print three times a year. The "Charity Rating Guide & Watchdog Report" is available for $3 to first-time users, and then for a $35 annual membership fee.

Finally, in a sobering nod to the ever-present risk of wrongdoing that comes with charitable fund-raising, the Federal Trade Commission has compiled a checklist of precautions to avoid fraud and "ensure that your donation dollars benefit the people and organizations you want to help."

Among its recommendations, the FTC says to "be wary of appeals that tug at your heart strings, especially pleas involving patriotism and current events." When dealing with telemarketers, the FTC says, "Call the charity to find out if it's aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. If the telemarketer claims that the charity will support local organizations, call the local groups to verify."

On the Net:

Federal Trade Commission's charity checklist: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/misc/charitycheck.pdf

Charity Navigator: www.charitynavigator.org

American Institute of Philanthropy: www.charitywatch.org

BBB Wise Giving Alliance: www.give.org/


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