Charitable giving

With the recent earthquake in Haiti, many people want to help a charity or group to help bring relief to this area. Images of property damage and human suffering move many to open their heart and their checkbook. The list of opportunities to give to charity is long and generous consumers should be sure that their money is doing the greatest good.

Whether the money is to help earthquake victims or for another worthy cause, follow these tips to help ensure that you are giving wisely.

  • Do your homework. Be certain that the organization has a clear mission and identifiable goals. Research the organization’s history. For example, how long has the organization been in existence?
  • Ask questions. The more you know about the charity, the more secure you will feel about your gift. For example, what is the overhead to run the charity and do they have a track record you are comfortable with?
  • Be wary of high pressure appeals. Legitimate charities should not intimidate you into making an on-the-spot donation. Be skeptical if someone thanks you for a pledge you don’t remember making.
  • Don’t give cash. For security and tax record purposes, pay by check. Write the official name of the charity on your check and ask for a receipt. Most charitable gifts are tax-deductible if made to a qualified organization. For more information, read IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions.

Despite the economy the past two years, personal giving is down almost 6%. Yet the greatest amount of charitable giving was not given by large corporations; a majority of funding came from donors that had a personal connection to the charity. With so many opportunities to give money and so many needy and deserving charities, it might be time to give some serious thought to how you are going to give your charity dollars in 2010.

You may want to be a regular donor, so consider how connected you are to the charity of your choice. For example, maybe you have lost a loved one to disease and that connection increases your interest in finding a cure. If you are a parent, consider involving your children in the selection of and contribution to a charity. Involving kids in the process can teach them valuable lessons that extend beyond the value of money.

While cash is always needed, you may also be able to give some materials things to a charity. For example, many charities will accept a donation of a car, boat, or even stocks. If you are donating household items or food, be sure to first ask your charity of choice what they need most.  For more information, read Charity Navigator's Guide to Donating Noncash Items. And remember, the gift of your time is always appreciated.

Cathy Williams is a former writer for MMI.