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Jonathan Kraut: In season of giving, keep charity local

Posted: December 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 4, 2012 2:00 a.m.

You are watching the late night news. At the commercial break you witness a young, barefoot girl in some Third World country standing on a smoldering trash heap. Her younger naked brother is at her side.

The announcer softly encourages you to donate to “help this girl and many others like her. ...”

This kind of marketing is working. The Giving USA 2011 Report estimates that, even in these economic times, “charitable giving in the United States rose 3.8 percent in 2010 ... at $290.89 billion.” That averages to nearly $1,000 per American man, woman, and child.

Local charities we can trust: we know the people who run these worthy operations, we see results firsthand, and our friends and neighbors sit on their boards.

My first-hand experience is that our local nonprofits, like our food pantries, Family Promise, the SCV Bridge To Home (homeless shelter), Crop Walk (feeding the hungry), and the Boys & Girls Club are worthy of your support.

Americans are among the most generous people in the world. It is tax time and the season to donate. But where is our money going if you are solicited by an organization out-of-town? Whom do those out-of-town donations really serve?

You will be alarmed.

My father calmly at the end of each year counts how many donation letters he has received, then divides the requests equally by a magic number his accountant assigns. He is happy to share his prosperity among the needy.

“I give everybody something,” he proudly said to me one year.

But that is the problem. A majority of out-of-town nonprofits are deceptive. Not only do we donate to charities that do little to support the needy, our hard-earned money ingratiates the deceptive and denies the deserving.

While in Sri Lanka assisting the tsunami recovery in 2005, I learned first-hand about Children’s Christian Fund. The fund was not only scooping up all the orphans it could find, but it was paying middle-class families monthly allowances to keep their children at live-in schools.

The fund pays a stipend to families for the opportunity to convert these children into devout Christians. In other words, American donations to this group are about buyingoff parents and not about curing poverty.

Please resist the 5 p.m. phone call asking you to donate to the families of “veterans, firefighters, police and paramedics.” These telemarketing organizations often have no direct affiliation with these groups.

Further, they are not required to pass along any donations.

Using an online site called “Charity Navigator,” I evaluated the use of donated funds as self-reported by nonprofits. Of 385 organizations supporting “animal rights and welfare,” only 68 claimed to actually direct 80 percent or more of their funds toward animal rights and welfare.

Thirteen said they spent less than 10 percent (in some cases 0 percent) of donated funds for the purpose of animal welfare.

Charities sponsoring “veterans” numbered 121, but only 18 reported they spent 80 percent or more as promised.

On average, I found about half the charities keep most of the money for themselves. Only one in eight charities spends 80 percent or more toward the goals of the charity.

In May 2009, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown announced the state of California was suing 12 charities and 17 telemarketing firms.

“They betrayed the trust of its donors,” Brown said. “Donors who asked were told that 80 to 100 percent of their donations would go to the charity when, in fact, the charity received less than 15 percent.

“Eighty to 90 percent of the donations received were used to pay the charity’s fundraising expenses.”

The Association of Firefighter and Paramedics Inc. were one of the most egregious violators. In September 2010, a settlement was reached with this and other charities who admitted wrongdoing. Some of these nonprofits since have vanished to resurface under new names.

Ensure your donations are to be used as promised by first, trying to keep our donations right here in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Second, don’t succumb to telemarketers — they get a hefty percentage. Finally, use Charity Navigator or another independent monitor to make sure that at least 80 percent of the money donated goes to the purpose of the charity.

Please be generous, but give smartly and donate locally.

Jonathan Kraut serves in the Democratic Party of the SCV, on the SCV Human Relations Forum and SCV Interfaith Council.


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