Friday, 2 November 2018

Americans are generous: last year, individuals gave more than $286 billion to charitable organizations, an increase of 6% over 2016, and more than foundations, bequests and corporations donated to worthy causes, combined. During the holidays, when our hearts swell three or more sizes, it's even more tempting to fling open our wallets to any person in need that we see on our social media feed.

Often, celebrities and influencers will leverage their popularity on behalf a cause. Michele Fitzwilliam, a longtime marketing executive and owner of an agency, Let's Build Your Voice, says you can do the same in your own networks, amplifying your contributions. “When you have an engaged social media following, you often can lend your voice to showing your audience another brand or charity you feel strongly about," she says, using Serena Williams' advocacy for breast cancer as an example. “That might look like sharing photos from a nonprofit, creating content on behalf of a cause and mentioning a nonprofit, and so forth."

How to give during the holidays, and beyond

There are so many causes competing for your dollar: animal rescues, humanitarian crises, underserved children and adults … the list goes on. The first step is to identify a charity you're passionate about, one you'll want to share with your friends, says Sara Nason, head of consumer innovation and engagement for Charity Navigator, a website that evaluates nonprofit organizations. “If it is something that you personally can put that story and connection to, then that's even more of a reason for people in your network to give," she says.

There are myriad ways you can harness the power of your social network: Get a campaign link directly from the charity, use a platform such as CrowdRise, or ask friends to send money to your PayPal or Venmo account and then donate. Whichever way you choose, make sure to thank donors individually, and share your fund-raising progress with them.

Sometimes individuals need help too, such as the neighbor who lost everything in a fire, or the teacher who can't pay mounting medical bills. One way to help is to gather all the funds in one place through a platform such as Facebook or Go Fund Me, which allows users to tell the story, share it widely and collect donations, but takes a percentage of credit card fees. The great thing about a platform like this is that anyone can use it— which is also its downside. Beware of requests from individuals, unless you personally know the recipient or someone close to them.

“Having that personal connection is really helpful because, that way, you know that it's within your network, and that the story is coming from a legitimate person," Nason says

Avoiding scams

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people masking as a charity who are willing to take your money for themselves. “There's always going to be the issue of misinformation on the internet," Nason says. The FTC suggests paying by credit card or check, and if you're unfamiliar with a charity, doing a search with its name and the terms “scam," “complaint," or “rating" to get a broader picture.

Scammers will also try to rush you into donating, thank you for a past donation you never made, or bait you with promises of sweepstakes winnings, the FTC says.

Beware of fraud, too, during times of widespread natural disasters. “Unfortunately, there's not a lot of extra steps that some fundraisers have to ensure that the money is getting to the right person, and especially in times of disaster, we see a bunch of scams pop up from individuals that aren't really going to the right person, or don't go to the right person at all, and in fact, are made up," Nason said.

She suggested going through the following steps to make sure the organization you're funding (as well as the person asking on its behalf) is legitimate:

  • Check to make sure the charity is an actual 501(c)(3) eligible to receive tax exempt donations. There are numerous sites that can do this, as well as an IRS search tool.
  • Make sure they're accountable and transparent, Nason says. “So do they have a website? Are they talking about what their programs are? Can you tell who's on their staff and who's on their board of directors? If you shoot them an email asking them about their programs, goals, their mission and their values, do they respond? Do they give you the answers that make you feel confident? Is that information even available on the website or on the organization's social media? Can you really tell what their previous successes were and how they're going to use their dollars for the future?"
  • Nason also suggested checking Charity Navigator to understand the financial health of the organization, and that your money is really going where you think it will: “Get all of that information because at the end of the day, it's your hard-earned dollar that you're giving to this organization and you want to make sure it's going to go as far as possible to help the communities that this organization is serving. And if you don't feel like your dollar is going to go as far as possible, consider donating elsewhere," she says.

Nason says that charities always appreciate the one-time gifts, but it's even more helpful to sign up for a monthly donation and to continue to share information about the charity. “That ongoing support, that ongoing conversation is what keeps nonprofits running."


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