Donate safely this holiday season

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published December 17, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — The holiday season is also the season of giving. Despite a difficult year — and perhaps because of it — many are looking to contribute to worthy causes and help the less fortunate.

However, authorities are urging people to be careful when they give to ensure they are not being scammed and that the money they are giving is going where they want it to.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is reminding residents of important tips to avoid such pitfalls.

“Every donation makes an impact, and I am proud to hold public office in a state with such a strong philanthropic foundation,” Nessel said in a press release. “But as Michigan’s Attorney General, I am committed to ensuring those donated dollars are going to the people and organizations they are intended for. If you are thinking about making a charitable donation this holiday season, there are some simple steps you can take to make sure your gift is being put to good use.”

She advised people to be cautious particularly when not meeting someone face to face, and to not feel pressured into giving unless they really want to give and know the facts.

“You don’t have to give over the phone. Don’t let any caller pressure you,” she wrote. “A legitimate charity will be happy to get your donation at any time, so there’s no rush. Take time to do the research. Ask the fundraiser for the charity’s exact name, web address, and mailing address, so you can confirm it later. Some dishonest telemarketers use names that sound like large well-known charities to confuse you.”

She added that there are several rules nonprofits have to follow. They can’t call before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. They have to tell you the name of the charity they’re calling for and tell you if the purpose of the call is to seek a donation. They can’t deceive you or lie about the fundraiser’s connection to the charity, the mission or purpose of the charity, whether a donation is tax deductible or how a donation will be used, or how much of the donation actually goes to the charity’s programs. They also cannot use a robocall or prerecorded message to reach people unless they have supported the charity in the past.

“If a fundraiser breaks any of these rules, that’s a red flag,” wrote Nessel. “Do some more research before you donate to them. If you think you’ve been contacted by a scam charity, or a fundraiser that is not following the rules, please tell the FTC (Federal Trade Commission): FTC.gov/Complaint. It’s most helpful to tell the FTC the name of the charity or fundraiser and why you think it was a scam.”

She also said that doing a web search with phrases such as “best charity” or “highly rated charity” and “complaint,” “review,” “rating,” or “scam” is a good way to look for positive endorsements or potential red flags.

Katie Lamb is the director of fund development at Rochester Area Neighborhood House, a local nonprofit that helps families recover from financial hardship. She said she has seen the ups and downs of people donating to organizations and that there are many things to watch out for.

“The No. 1 thing is making sure they are registered as a nonprofit,” she said. “There are some entities who will try to solicit money by appearing to be a nonprofit but are not.”

She directed those making donations this year to check out www.charitynavigator.org and www.guidestar.org, two sites that provide information on registered nonprofits.

“They can show you that an organization is a registered nonprofit,” Lamb said. “The registered nonprofits on those sites all have ratings to show how they perform or their financials and tax information. Another good place to look is the organization’s website itself. Nonprofits should be providing that information themselves.”

Lamb added that sometimes the best way to vet a nonprofit is to speak with its representatives yourself.

“Some nonprofits may be newer and not have a lot of history despite being a worthy cause, so I would recommend calling them and speaking to them personally,” she explained. “You can ask what percentage of the donation goes to direct services as opposed to administrative costs. A lot of organizations already include that information. Ask about their work and look for specifics and not vague answers, which can be a bad sign. If you’re passionate about a particular topic or area, you can designate your donation to a specific program.”

When making donations, Lamb also advised people to track their donations both to ensure people can deduct it from their taxes and because if a group provides donors with a verifiable paper trail, it is far less likely that they are illegitimate. She also said to explore other ways to contribute if large monetary donations just aren’t feasible.

“Making sure to verify that they will get a record of the transaction and you get their identifying number with their thank-you information is always good advice,” said Lamb. “You can find out what else they need if you can’t donate a large amount of money. You can get involved or donate food or other necessities instead.”

Despite the concerns about scammers, Lamb encouraged people to donate since there is a real need, particularly with many people hit hard by COVID-19.

“This is a year where communities are really hard hit with everything that has gone on,” she said. “If you have the capacity to give, it is very much needed. If you are on the other end and find yourself struggling, don’t hesitate to reach out to groups such as Neighborhood House. That’s why we’re here, and there’s a lot of good organizations out there which can help.”

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