Your $10 donation to an efficient, effective, and legitimate
charity will make a bigger impact in forwarding the cause you want to support
than your $1,000 donation to a scammer or highly inefficient nonprofit. Before
making a charitable contribution, read these tips for avoiding charity frauds
and scams. Make giving thoughtfully an essential part of how you give.
1. Cut Out the Middleman & Give Directly
When prompted to give in response to a social media post,
direct mail letter, telemarketing call, or other fundraiser, you are asked to
focus on the cause or end recipient of your contribution as opposed to the
person or company asking you for the donation. Just because the charity is legitimate
doesn’t mean the person asking for the donation is. Instead of clicking on a
donation link posted by a third-party, open a new browser and navigate directly
to the donation page on the charity’s official website. Eliminating the
unnecessary middleman will likely mean:
* Fewer fees will eat into your donation before it gets to
* Your donation will be received by the charity immediately
rather than held by a third-party for transfer to the charity at a later date
* Scammers are unable to pocket your donation for themselves
* You are exposing your personal information to fewer people,
putting yourself at less risk for identity fraud or for having your data
circulated to companies that may use it to bombard you with ads and additional donation
2. Crowdfunding – Don’t Rely on the Wisdom of the Crowd
Donating through a crowdfunding website is not much
different than handing cash over to a stranger on the street. Unlike registered
charities which are subject to formation filings and reporting requirements
like articles of incorporation, bylaws, tax exemption applications, annual IRS tax
reporting, and state solicitation filings, crowdfunding campaigns are most
often conducted by individuals for whom no public financial reporting is
required. There are countless examples of scammers taking advantage of
crowdfunding platforms to siphon donations away from people and causes with
legitimate needs and redirect this cash to themselves.
* When you encounter a crowdfunding campaign that promises to
pass funds on to a charity, skip the middleman and donate directly to the nonprofit
on its official website.
* If a campaign claims to benefit victims of a tragedy or
disaster, find financially efficient registered charities with a track record of performing good work in similar crises and
donate to these instead. Doing so will better ensure that funds get to
legitimate victims in a timely manner and are distributed equitably.
* If you are moved by the plight of an individual or family
asking for funds to help with medical bills or other personal expenses, donate
at your own risk. You could be helping a family in dire need or lining the
pockets of a fraudster. There is rarely a way to know for certain. If you do
decide to take a leap of faith and make a donation to an individual, make sure
you are on the official campaign page of that individual or family and not a
copycat page created by a scammer in the wake of a tragedy to confuse donors
and siphon funds away for themselves.
Read CharityWatch’s article
on crowdfunding for more information.
3. Keep Your Emotions in Check
Nonprofits may use evocative imagery and heartbreaking
stories to create a sense of urgency about an issue, engendering empathy and
inspiring you to donate immediately, generously, and repeatedly. While it’s ok
for you to allow your emotions to catalyze your giving, when it comes time to
make a donation it’s important to think with your head and not with your heart.
A charity’s ability to post sad photos, tell sad stories, or provide a handful
of anecdotal examples of people it has helped does nothing to inform you about
how efficiently it is operating on the whole or if it is even a legitimate
charity at all.
One of the best ways to keep emotions in check when making
giving decisions is by being proactive rather than reactive. Instead of making
a contribution on the spot in reaction to an emotional appeal for donations,
think ahead. Consider how much you can afford to donate to charity each year,
reflect on which causes are important to you, then seek out efficient and
responsible charities working in those causes that conduct the specific types
of programs you want to support and have a track record of impactful work.
Listen to the podcast When Giving Can Go Wrong for a deeper dive into how to maintain optimism and
generosity in your giving habits while also being discerning when making
donating decisions. Also read Our Hope for a Better World is Reflected in Our Acts of Giving.
4. Scrutinize the Claims Charities Make About Themselves
A bad charity is rarely going to tell on itself. In fact,
the people running it will go to great lengths to obscure its financial
reporting, using accounting tricks or outright lies to make it appear to be
operating more efficiently than it actually is. For-profit professional
fundraisers soliciting on a charity’s behalf may have a contract with the
charity that allows it to skim as much as 90-95% of your donation off the top
before passing what little remains on to the charity. Such fundraisers are
notorious for crafting highly misleading donation appeals designed to play on
your emotions and convince you that most of your donation will be used for a
charitable purpose when this is far from the case.
* For an example, read here
about the telemarketers of nearly 20 “F” rated charities that were subject to a
$110 million judgment after being busted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Also understand that sham charities and financially
inefficient nonprofits sometimes use ratings published by third-party websites to
lend credibility to their organizations and gain your trust. A charity having a
high rating or impact profile posted in an online ratings database does not
necessarily mean a qualified financial analyst (or any human) has scrutinized
that reporting in any meaningful way. Some of the online databases purporting
to rate charities contain data on tens of thousands of nonprofits that is
primarily derived from computer-automated algorithms that scan machine-readable
tax forms for self-reported information. Others function more as crowdsourcing
websites, allowing charities to upload information about themselves in exchange
for an improved rating. In other words, such websites may function as little
more than an extension of a charity’s marketing strategy versus watchdogs that
rigorously scrutinize financial reporting for the purpose of informing and protecting
donors. When you see a charity touting its high ratings from third-party
websites, don’t factor this variable into your giving decisions until you fully
understand the level of analysis that went into those ratings and how easy (or
difficult) it is for charities to game those systems for their own benefit.
Read here for some examples of third-party raters:
The GuideStar Exchange Program: Sometimes Gold, Silver and Bronze Mean Less Than You Think
F Rated Charities Awarded Best in America Seal
'Not So' GreatNonprofits
CharityWatch Calls for Military Care Package Charity to 'Adopt' Better Accountability
5. Donate to Top-Rated Charities or Conduct Your Own Research
Visit CharityWatch’s list of Top-Rated charities to identify an efficient charity to support working in a cause
important to you. Nonprofits on the list generally spend 75% or more of their
budgets on programs, spend $25 or less to raise $100 in public support, do not
hold excessive assets in reserve, have met CharityWatch's governance
benchmarks, and receive "open-book" status for disclosure of basic
financial information and documents to CharityWatch. Please visit the Our Process page
for more information on CharityWatch’s rating criteria and methodology.
CharityWatch’s A+ to F ratings are
the result of thousands of hours of in-depth analysis of large U.S. charities
of national scope or interest. Our quality over quantity approach to rating
charities unfortunately means that we can’t rate every nonprofit. We have
compiled this list of Resources for Donors & Journalists to aid you in your research of nonprofit organizations of
interest to you. Tips for researching smaller charities or those that primarily
raise and spend funds locally can be found here.