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It's Your Money: Charity Checks

Most of us will give money to at least one charity this year; 70%-80% of Americans, according to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel.

Individual giving is the single largest source of charitable gifts, so your decision whether to give money and to whom is a big one, no matter how large your donation.

"There are an awful lot of legitimate charities out there and, unfortunately, there are a lot of illegitimate charities out there," points out Janet Jenkins, Administrator with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection

Jenkins says a lot of charity fund raising is still done over the telephone. So don't be surprised to get a call this holiday season.

"These people want you to give on the spot while they have you on the phone. Don't do it," advises Jenkins. "Many of the illegitimate charities purport to be collecting on behalf of things that pull at heartstrings like disabled veterans."

Jenkins says illegitimate charities may not necessarily be breaking the law.

"People need to be careful because a lot of these charities are legitimate in the sense that they give a very tiny portion of the collected money to charity. But most of it they keep for themselves. There are no laws in Wisconsin that say that you have to give so much of collected money to be licensed as a charity."

As a guideline, but not necessarily a hard and fast rule, at least 60% of the money you give should go to a charity's programs or services. When they call, ask what their percentage is. Also, ask what percentage goes to salaries and administration. Ask them to send you a detailed financial report. Also, ask to see a copy of their form 990; the IRS form that shows how a charity uses its money.

There are several good websites where you can check a charity's credentials. They include,, and This is one money area where you'll need to do the legwork.

"Remember, if you give $20 directly to the police department, they get the whole $20. Whereas, if you give to a charity that isn't completely legit, they may only get 10-cents on the dollar," says Jenkins.

You can check to see if a charity is registered in Wisconsin by calling Consumer Protection at 608-266-5511.

But, keep in mind, just because the group is registered doesn't necessarily mean it uses your money well.

During the holiday season, hearts and wallets open and charitable giving gets a boost.

By some estimates, 50 percent of charitable giving happens in the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.

Americans donated about a quarter trillion dollars to charity last year. With so much money changing hands, it's important to separate the good charities from the bad.

Respondents to a poll done by The United Way of Greater Milwaukee found that accountability was the most important factor when deciding on a charity.

When donating, experts recommend you do your research. Consider the type of organization you want to give to and work with a charity that will provide you with information on how your money is spent.

Wisconsin's Better Business Bureau is working to create a seal of approval, which coincides with the bureau's rating system -- a 20-point standard -- that potential donors can look for when deciding on a charity.

Wed 11/29/2006

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