In our view: Give and Take

Donors need to know how much of their contribution actually reaches the charity

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'Tis the season for giving — and, all too often, for being taken.

While many of us greet the holidays with a noble and philanthropic desire to be charitable, some others see this time of year as an opportunity to take advantage of our largesse. That was one of the lessons in a report issued recently from the Washington Secretary of State’s office.

Here’s the gist:

• Charitable organizations often enlist professional fundraisers to solicit money from the public on their behalf.

• The percentage of donations that eventually reaches the intended charity varies widely depending upon the fundraiser.

Commercial fundraisers in Washington brought in more than $773 million during the last fiscal year, of which about $434 million made it through the overhead costs and the administrative costs and the profit allocations . . . all the way to the intended charity. That’s a 56 percent success rate — a sharp drop from 77 percent the previous year, but a little higher from the typical average over the past decade.

Hitting the target 56 percent of the time might be pretty good if you’re shooting baskets or running for public office or playing blackjack, but it doesn’t sound particularly successful for a business that is supposed to be raising money for charity.

Of the 117 commercial fundraisers registered in Washington, 10 passed along more than 80 percent of their earnings to their charity clients. But 46 of those fundraisers kept more than 80 percent of what they raised, and the remainder fell somewhere between those extremes.

So, what’s a good-hearted consumer to do?

“The best way to maximize your contributions is to contact charitable organizations in your community and ask how they spend donations,” Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna said in a recent Columbian story by reporter Scott Hewitt. “Don’t be afraid to ask how much of your donation will go to the charitable purpose.”

That advice applies year-round. But it’s likely that during the Christmas season, our wallets are a little looser as we embrace the words of John Quincy Adams: “In charity to all mankind, bearing no malice or ill-will to any human being.” Or, perhaps, we’re simply mindful of these words from the New Testament, “Charity shall cover the multitude of sins.”

Either way, if there are people willing to give to charity, there are people willing to take advantage of those Samaritans. And not all of the predators are posing as an African prince who contacts you by e-mail.

Therefore, here are some things to keep in mind if you are contacted by a solicitor for some wonderful-sounding charity:

• The Washington Secretary of State’s office has a toll-free charities hotline: 1-800-332-4483.

• If you think you have been the victim of charity fraud, call the Attorney General Consumer Resource Center at 800-551-4636.

• The state’s 2011 Commercial Fundraiser Activity Report includes information on commercial fundraisers in the state, including the percentage of donations that eventually reach the charity. It can be found on the Secretary of State Web site at http://sos.wa.gov/

• The state also has produced a “Give, But Give Wisely” brochure with information for consumers.

“It’s important for the public to remember that when someone asks you for a donation, there’s a chance it’s a third party getting paid to make that solicitation,” Secretary of State Sam Reed said.

Yet while it is important for donors to demonstrate caution, it also is important that they give. Many people in our community and many worthy causes are in need of financial help, be it during the holidays or throughout the year.

Giving out of the goodness of your heart can enhance the holidays for your family, so long as you don’t get taken in the process.