Celebrities Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kim Cardassian - erm - Kardashian, and Zoe Saldana

How can I tell if a charity is legitimate?

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I’d like to donate more to some less popular charities that are for causes near and dear to my heart. But especially with some of these smaller, lesser-known charities, how do I know if they’re on the up and up, don’t spend a large percentage of their donations on “administrative fees” or are just someone trying to scam me out of my money?

  1. Celebrities Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kim Cardassian - erm - Kardashian, and Zoe Saldana

    Practice safe donation

    Donating to causes you believe in is an empowering, satisfying, and just a generally good human being thing to do. Unfortunately, there are people out there that prey on those who wish to give of themselves to improve the human condition. Yes Virginia, there are fake charities out there — ones that just take your money and give it not to, say, cancer research, but to buying themselves a new television. So apart from staying strictly with the big names that everyone knows, how do you protect yourself?

    Trust, but verify

    No, you don’t need to do a full background check on every charity you give to, finding the phone numbers of the leaders, where they live, their favorite colors, and the names of their children. However, a little bit of due diligence can ensure that your money goes to where you want it to go, and not to the beer fund of some fake charity. Here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself:

    • Check with the BBB: Charities that solicit nationally are listed on the Better Business Bureau’s National Charity Reports Index. If a charity doesn’t comply with the BBB’s standards for accountability, the discrepancies are noted. Do note that this is only for national charities, not state or local. However, you can check with your local BBB office for that — just go here to find their contact info.
    • Check out Guidestar: Guidestar lists over 700,000 nonprofit organizations, letting you know if your contributions are tax deductible. Some charities have printable versions of their Form 990, which is the IRS form used by nonprofits to report their annual financial information.
    • Look them up with the IRS: Failing the above, you can go right to the source — you can search the IRS website for the charity you are curious about.
    • Check with your state’s charity regulator: This is a great resource for local charities, as they can tell you everything you need to know. Don’t know who regulates charitable organizations in your state? No problem — do a search over on NASCO (National Association of State Charity Officials) to find out who to talk to.

    Other options

    If you’re really in doubt of where your money is going — or you just don’t have a lot to spare but you still want to help out — consider volunteering with the charity of your choice. Whether it’s answering phones, sorting mail, organizing an event, or just sweeping the floors, you can rest assured they will appreciate your help.

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