Investigators: What to know before writing a check to a charity

The hand bells outside shopping malls.

The iconic red kettles brimming with cash and coin.

‘Tis the season of giving and lots of you, have lots of charities, on your gift lists.

“Pennsylvanians are, for the most part, very generous, very giving, and very caring, particularly at this time around the holiday,” said Peter Speaks, Deputy Secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

There are nearly 13,000 charities registered in PA and Speaks oversees them. He has Christmas concerns.

“There are those that will prey upon and take advantage of the generosity and kindness and compassion of Pennsylvanians,” Speaks said.

Representative Anthony DeLuca has seen it.

“I had cancer,” said DeLuca, matter-of-factly.

In fact, DeLuca and his wife are both cancer survivors and have contributed to cancer research hoping to help find a cure. But he said he felt ill when he followed the money.

“A lot of charities talking about cancer research but a lot of that is going to telemarketers, going to salaries, very little of it goes to research,” DeLuca said.

The Department of State suggests doing research before donating. It has created this website for every registered charity and breaks down the numbers. How much goes to the mission? to management and expenses? to fundraisers and telemarketers? The answers are a mouse click away.

Type in cancer and the system gets swamped with more than a hundred entries. Narrow it down to the local Gittlen Cancer Research and you’ll see that 83 percent goes to cancer research, 6 percent ot management expenses and 8 percent is spent on fundraising. Those are, comparatively, very good numbers.

Then there’s the United Cancer Support Foundation. According to the charities website, it raised $5.7 million but $4.9 million of that went to the fundraisers and only 3.3 percent to the cause.

“When they siphon this money away from the mission, the people are getting cheated,” DeLuca insists.

DeLuca authored a bill requiring charities soliciting in Pennsylvania to give 65 percent of the money raised to the cause. It may sound good but Speaks says it’s not legal.

“The courts have determined that to be unconstitutional,” Speaks said.

As long as a charity registers, the state won’t call it naughty or nice. That, they insist, is for donors to decide.

“Do not give to a charity that you’re not familiar with,” said Speaks. “You should not be misled or fooled by the fact that there may be similar sounding names such as veterans, or firefighters, or police associations, or schools or children. So do your homework. That’s most important.”

Police organizations are a popular destination for donor dollars.

But beware.

It might make you blue to learn the International Union of Police Associations spent nearly $12 million of the $13 million it raised on the people calling for those donations.

The Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police, based in Harrisburg, turned over 82 percent to those professional fundraisers, according to the website, and only 5 percent went to its mission.

The FOP wouldn’t go on camera to answer our questions but said all of the money it eventually get goes to the families of fallen police officers, to help wounded or disabled officers or to fund a memorial. Certainly worthwhile causes and if donors really want to help they should hang up the phone no the solicitor, write a check directly to the FOP and mail it to its Harrisburg headquarters. All of that money would go to the cause. As the saying goes, cut out the middle man.

DeLuca has a Scrooge-like opinion of groups that tell you they’re raising money for a charity and keep most of it for themselves.

“I don’t know how these people sleep at night, let’s put it that way, or if they have a conscience.”

But let’s end with good cheer.

The Salvation Army, with those big red kettles, steered more money toward its mission than it took in last year and only spent 2.5 percent on fundraising.

Those bells, and their numbers, should sound pretty good to donors.

Experts say there are things you should do before giving away your money. Know your charity, they say. Research it and understand exactly how they’re using your money and make sure you support the mission. Don’t be pressured into giving on the spot. Take your time, they say, and think about it. You should also ask questions. Ask, for instance, how much of the money goes to the cause and how much is spent on salaries and how much is spent on fundraising. They are required to know it and tell you. If they don’t, it’s a red flag.

They also say you should pay with a check. Avoid giving cash or debit and credit cards over the phone.

Charitable giving is admirable and can make the giver feel good this time of the year. But they’ll no doubt feel better if they know the money is going where it should.

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