Note: This column by Secretary of State Tre Hargett originally appeared in the Knoxville News-Sentinel on November 28, 2013.
As we enter the holiday season, many of us are making plans to purchase gifts for family members and other loved ones. And when we do, we are surely hoping that our gifts will be meaningful to the people who receive them – not just tokens that end up in the trash or the back of a closet somewhere.
The same type of thinking should apply to the charitable contributions we make. This time of year, many people feel moved to give money to various causes. And when they do, they have hopes that their donations will be used to help make the world a better place.
That’s usually the case, but not always. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there who try to take advantage of the kindness and generosity of charitable givers.
Fortunately, there are steps we can take to reduce the likelihood our money will be wasted or misspent.
First of all, before giving to a charity, don’t be afraid to ask questions: How will the money be spent? Who will benefit? How long has the charity been in operation? Where are its offices? Is there a web site where more information about the charity is available?
People who work for reputable charities shouldn’t mind answering those types of questions for you. And those who won’t answer or give vague answers to those types of questions should be regarded with suspicion.
Also, avoid being pressured into making donations “on the spot.” Solicitors who knock on your door or approach you in a store’s parking lot should be willing to provide you with contact information where you can send donations after you’ve had a chance to do some research on unfamiliar charities. If they’re not willing to do that, it should raise a red flag.
My office’s Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming keeps financial information about charities that are registered to solicit money in Tennessee. That information can be found on our web site at http://www.tn.gov/sos/charity/index.htm. Some types of charities fall into exempted categories and aren’t required to register with us. The exempted categories are listed on the site. If a charity doesn’t belong to one of those exempted categories and isn’t registered with us, that, too, should raise a red flag.
One key area to watch is how much money charities spend on administrative expenses as opposed to programs and services. If very little of the money a charity collects is actually spent on programs that help people, then that may be a concern for many potential donors.
When making charitable contributions, never give cash or checks written to individuals. Writing a check made out to the organization decreases the chance of fraud and it also gives you a record of your donation for tax purposes. Only donate using a credit card with highly-trusted organizations.
Finally, if you believe someone is using false or misleading information to raise money for a charitable cause, contact the Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming at (615) 741-2555 or 1-800-861-7393. Our office has the authority to impose civil penalties against individuals or groups that do not follow Tennessee law.
For those who can afford to do so, making charitable contributions can be very rewarding. But as with any other type of expenditure you make, you ought to feel confident that you’re getting a good return on your money.