The end of another year brings the rush to reduce your tax bill. Although December 31 looms, you’re probably too busy to weed through the tax-deductible organization pleas cluttering your mailbox. But focus your energy online and you’ll see that finding a worthy charity isn’t as hard as you might think. Follow my crash course on online charitable giving and in an evening you’ll find a group for your donation.
The first site I hit is Money magazine online’s Charity Selector. These pages list such big-name nonprofits as the United Way and the Haven Recovery Center as well as lesser-known groups. I could easily and confidently choose any one of these organizations and give a lump sum.
In a little over an hour, using the Charity Selector’s Web links, I manage to download mission statements, program rosters, membership details, and donation forms for a dozen of the top 100 charities. Some of the leading organizations include the National Trust for Historic Preservation (www.nthp.org), Habitat for Humanity International (www.habitat.org), the Metropolitan Opera (www.metopera.org), and the American Heart Association (www.amhrt.org).
Afraid that you can’t find the right outlet for your interest in the plight of Native Americans or beach erosion? Push on.
Worthy Tiny Tims
In search of smaller charitable organizations that have information online, I locate nonprofits related to hiking and the environment. Searching under the environmental category at the nonprofit Independent Charities of America’s Charities-USA (www.charitiesusa.com), I find the American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Trail Conference, and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
If hiking doesn’t interest you, why not check out some organizations that help legal and international causes. Action Without Borders (www. idealist.org/sample/dir.htm) claims a directory of some 10,000 U.S. and international nonprofit Web sites. A real find, it helps me locate a wide range of local charities. A visit to the American Council for Voluntary International Action (www.interaction.org) locates worldwide nonprofits providing humanitarian assistance. A quick search at the straightforward America’s Charities yields the Native American Rights Fund (www.narf.org), which helps tribes and villages.
Perhaps your legal interests are geared toward freedom of the press and privacy issues. If so, you’ll find Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR (www.fair.org/fair/), and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org/index.html) at Nonprofit Organizations on the Internet (www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/ Non/non-pic.html), which provides links to more than 50 groups and overviews.
These sites don’t begin to tap all the charity information available online. The nonprofit locator section of the comprehensive Internet Nonprofit Center (www.nonprofits.org) offers searches of some I million tax-exempt entities.
How specific can you get with an online charity hunt? I search Benefice on my particular interests and turn up the Women’s History Project as well as contact information for nonprofits that lack a Web home, including Adopt a Beach and the Tree Trust. A last cruise on the Net brings me to Cats Haven, an irresistible cat shelter. One look at the beauties on these pages and this allergy-ridden cat-lover-from-afar finds herself signing up for the sponsorship program.
Digging beyond the big-name charities yields some wonderful specialty nonprofits that will satisfy your creative urges.
The Dollars and Sense of Giving
I’m clicking away when I notice advisories on charitable giving sprinkled among the site links. One FTC fact sheet notes that “close to $1.43 billion in 1995 contributions were misused or misappropriated,” and a top consumer financial publication advises that even well-known charities have been plagued by scandal in recent years.
Scouting for charities is fun, but this expedition has financial ramifications. If you plan to deduct your charitable contributions on your tax return, the nonprofit must be recognized as a tax-exempt organization by the IRS and have 501(c)(3) status. You can verify this information in an organization’s annual report or through evaluations supplied by independent groups.
Although a number of independent organizations such as the National Charities Information Bureau (www. give.org) and the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org) offer reports online, you’ll find that these summaries vary widely in completeness, content, evaluation methods, and timeliness.
To get up to speed in a flash on the fine points of nonprofit giving, make a quick stop at GuideStar’s FAQs about nonprofits (www.guidestar.org), the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and the United Way (www.unitedway.org/deduct.html). (Also see “Give Wisely.”)
How to Ante Up Online
In several cases, particularly for larger groups, payment is a one-step process. Many charities accept credit cards through online forms protected by the industry standard Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption supported in both Netscape Navigator 2.X and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3.X. If I were uncomfortable giving online or if the organization didn’t accept digital donations, I could call in my pledge. In many cases, I can also fax or mail in a provided form. Some groups will even bill me.
As long as you contribute $250 or less to each charity, the IRS will accept a canceled check or a credit card statement as proof of your contribution. However, the IRS requires that a charity give you a receipt for any donation amount greater than $250 for you to take a deduction. Some organizations do this via e-mail; others will mail it to you.
If I were in a hurry (or lazy), I could even consolidate gifts to multiple charities at Give On-line. This free, SSL-encrypted service forwards a completed pledge form to the charities I designate. I can have a charity call me for billing details or send me an invoice. The pledge card at America’s Charities USA site provides a similar service.
So spend a couple of hours surfing one Sunday. You’re bound to find an organization that could use your money wisely-and you’ll see your tax bill decrease. Besides, donating to charity makes a personal connection that links you with a worldwide community. Why not pick a few and enjoy how it feels?
To make sure you aren’t throwing money away, you’ve got to know how a nonprofit is using your donation. First, look for the group’s annual report or financial statement. Since most nonprofits do not include financial statements or a breakdown of income and expenses on their Web sites, you may have to e-mail them a request for a financial statement or annual report. You might also wish to request copies of their three most recent Form 990 federal tax returns.
When you get the financial report, check out how much the organization spends on administrative expenses (such as fund-raising and staff). These amounts should be relatively low; program expenses should be high. Nonprofit consultants and watchdog organizations suggest that a charitable organization spend a minimum of 60 percent of donor contributions on program expenses. The American Red Cross, for example, spends almost 92 percent of its income on programs (versus an average of 78.4 percent for Money’s ranking of the 100 biggest nonprofits).