What to ask before donating to a charitable organization

Giving to a local charity may feel like the right thing to do, but doing a bit of research early on could help protect your wallet.

This week, 97 cats were seized from Charm City Animal Rescue in Cumberland, Md. While the animals are currently in the care of the Allegany County Animal Shelter, some customers took to Facebook saying money had been donated to support the organization in the past. 

"CCAR just had a HUGE fundraiser (I think they raised something like $8000) via Facebook on the day of giving. Michelle had posted that she would not receive the funds until February though. Is there a way we can stop her from getting the funds??," said user Jessie Green.

The incident is still under investigation, but there some key questions you should ask before handing over your cash to a charity, according to Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Greater Maryland.

RELATED: 97 cats seized by Allegany County Animal Shelter

To avoid losing money, it’s best to go through this background checklist:

  1. Get the charity’s exact name and information. Ask for their name, address, and written information on programs and finances.
  2. When in doubt, check it out. If you are unfamiliar with an organization soliciting donations, don’t give without getting details about the charity first.
  3. Resist pressure to give on the spot, whether from a telemarketer or door-to-door solicitor.
  4. Watch out for cases of mistaken identity. Some charity names sound alike. Be careful that the one soliciting you is the one you have in mind.
  5. Be wary of heart-wrenching appeals. What matters is what the charity is doing to help.
  6. Press for specifics. If the charity says it’s helping the homeless, for example, ask how and where it’s working.
  7. Know how much of your purchase goes to the charity. If something is being sold to benefit a charity, be wary of statements such as “all proceeds go to charity.” Look for a disclosure that states exactly how much will go to the charity’s programs.
  8. Watch out for charity fraud. Legitimate charities are transparent and willingly provide written information about their programs and finances.
  9. Give by check or credit card. Charitable contributions to tax-exempt organizations may be tax-deductible to you. When you give by check or credit card, you have proof of your donation when it’s time to do your taxes. Never give via wire transfer.
  10. Check websites for basics. A charity’s mission, program and finances should be available on its site. If not, check for a report at www.give.org.
  11. Check with state charity officials. In Maryland, non-profits must be registered with the Secretary of State to solicit money. You can also check an organization’s tax status at www.irs.gov/app/eos.

See also: Tips for avoiding common mistakes when donating to charity

“The bottom line is doing your homework” Barnett said. "The challenge is with that emotional appeal. If you’re an animal lover and you see this, the emotions take over."

Don't let your emotions stop you from doing research, and don't assume that an organization is legitimate just because it has a website.

The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance helps serve as a watchdog, evaluating the business practices and effectiveness of non-profits using a set of national standards, but if you observe issues within an organization, Barnett says it's best to alert the authorities. 

"When you see a charity that's not performing at a standard you believe is appropriate, report it. Making general consumers aware of it is one of the biggest powers you can have."

Charges against Charm City Animal Rescue are pending, according to Allegany County Animal Shelter's Facebook page. 

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