Editorial: Ensure your charitable contribution helps

By on January 21, 2010

By now, we have all seen the devastating impact of the recent earthquake in Haiti, and countless individuals and organizations are trying to do their part to send money and aid to those suffering.

Unfortunately, there are also those who see this tragedy as a way to take advantage of those kind-hearted people who wish to help.

Additionally, it is possible that legitimate efforts to assist the aid effort could cause logistical problems, given the sheer size of the need and the volume of aid making its way to the ravaged nation.

To that effect, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has urged residents who plan to donate to earthquake relief efforts to be on the lookout for scams and to avoid fundraising efforts that may prove counterproductive at this time.

“At this time when the people of Haiti desperately need help, I want to encourage wise giving to make sure that donations go toward legitimate causes that will directly contribute to relief efforts,” Madigan said in a recent statement. “Unfortunately, it’s common to hear of fraudulent charities taking advantage of people’s generosity in the wake of catastrophes. Before sending money, Illinoisans should ask questions, gather information about the organization and donate only when you’re satisfied that your money will be used in an appropriate manner.”

Donors who are seeking to give to the Haitian earthquake relief efforts should be wary of requests for clothing, food or other in-kind donations, which may not be appropriate. Unless the charitable organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid, the donations may be more of a burden than a help. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

For example, in our page 1A story on the Sugar Grove United Methodist Church effort to raise funds, collect items and support its ongoing mission to Haiti, the church is partnered with the American Red Cross and the United Methodist Commitee on Relief. The Elburn Walgreens’ effort to collect items is part of a partnership with the Evanston, Ill.,-based Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, which has worked out a plan with a major airline to transport items in the relief effort. The Kaneland High School fundraising drive to send aid to Haiti is working with the American Red Cross.

For those considering a donation of money or items to the relief effort, Madigan’s office suggested the following tips to ensure your efforts do not go to waste:
• Ask how much of your donation will go to the charity and how much will be used to pay fundraising costs. Solicitors must give you this information if you ask.
• Pay close attention to the name of the charity. Some fraudulent charities use names that sound or look like those of legitimate organizations to mislead you.
• Ask questions about the charity. Donate only when your questions have been answered and you are certain your money will be used according to your wishes. Ask questions like whether the charity is registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office and what percentage of the money the charity takes in goes to fundraising, administration and charitable programming.
• Do not pay in cash. For security and tax record purposes, pay by check. Be sure to write the full official name of the charity on your check—do not abbreviate.
• Request written information. A legitimate charity will provide you with information outlining its mission, how your donation will be distributed, and proof that your contribution is tax deductible.
• Do not donate if the solicitor uses high-pressure tactics, asks for cash payment or insists on sending someone to pick up your donation. These are all hallmarks of a scam.

Madigan encouraged donors to report suspicious solicitations to her office’s Charitable Trust Bureau by calling (312) 814-2595. The Attorney General recommended that, whenever possible, keep notes detailing the date and time of the call, the organization’s name, and the name of the solicitor. She also suggested trying to remember the “pitch” as well as any other pertinent information.

The tragedy in Haiti has pulled both the best and worst from people; let us make sure that those who are part of the worst do not take advantage of those who are part of the best.