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Focus on the Law: Givers Beware!

By Sharon Frankenberg,
Attorney at Law

After counting our many blessings over the Thanksgiving holidays, most of us feel motivated to share our good fortune with others.  This is especially true over the next few weeks of the Christmas holiday season.  There are numerous opportunities to share our time and our talents.  But how do we know that our monetary gifts will really help those in need?

My first suggestion is to stick with charitable groups you know.  Your own church and other religious organizations can do a great deal of good by combining your contributions with those of the other members.  Your money is often spent in our community to address local needs.  Specific budget and program information should be readily available to members.  There is a high level of accountability at this level of giving.

A second suggestion is to carefully choose a reputable charity.  You can do research on charities by checking them out on a variety of websites.  The Tennessee Secretary of State Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming’s website may be found at http://www.tn.gov/sos/charity/  and reached by phone at (615)741-2555.  You can look individual charities up by name and find their contact information and financial reports they file with our state giving a breakdown of revenue and expenses in various categories.  The IRS.gov website contains a service called Exempt Organizations Select Check.   This lets you review reports and filings made with the Internal Revenue Service by various groups, including charitable organizations.   This service includes a much larger base of groups than the ones found just in our state.

Another way to research a charity is to utilize national ratings organizations like the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance (www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national) and Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) that evaluate charities on multiple criteria including how much of donors’ dollars actually benefit the charitable cause.  The Center for Investigative Reports actually publishes a list of America’s 50 Worst Charities and several Tennessee-based charities are near the top of the list.  According a June 13, 2013 article from the Tampa Bay Times, this is based in large part on the fact that so much of the money raised by them is paid back out in huge executive salaries and fundraising costs.  The interactive link is at www.tampabay.com/americas-worst-charities.  A bad charity gives only a tiny percentage of the money raised to help people.  There are so many worthy groups,  please do not waste your money on bad charities.

While I was writing this column, I received an email solicitation from a national charity.  I have donated to them in the past and gave them permission to contact me via email.  Had this not been the case, I would have simply hit the “delete” button.  Likewise, feel free to hang up on phone solicitors asking for donations.  My final suggestion is to be extremely wary of door to door solicitors or any kind of situation where you are being pressured into donating on the spot.  Legitimate charities don’t need to resort to these type of tactics and will be happy to let you send your contribution in at your convenience.  Reputable charities can stand up to scrutiny because their good works speak for themselves.  Happy giving!

]Sharon Frankenberg is an experienced attorney licensed in Tennessee since 1988. Her office number in Knoxville is (865)539-2100.

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