Wary About Charity

Posted November 15, 2015, under Gee Whillickers!

Whether because of the looming spirit of goodwill to all, or the less abstract concept of year-end tax breaks, it’s fast becoming charitable donations time.When we picked “Charities” as the theme for the month, we didn’t know how deeply disheartening the whole subject is. Unless you’re a very particular type of comedian, it’s difficult to make jokes about things like starving children in Africa.

It’s not even just that the causes charities exist for are, well, kind of super-depressing. There doesn’t really need to be a social awareness campaign for puppies and rainbows, you know?

Oh, wait — yes, there does. We’re so, so sorry.

Even when a charity finds a way to be somewhat flippant about its cause, the campaigns that come out of that are still, of necessity, pretty cringe-inducing.

But say you get past that. Some charities have become institutions in their own right, and surely we can put some pennies into the boxes that kids bring around on Halloween, right? Well, you’d think so, but then you get an email that tells you, in part:

UNICEF – CEO, receives $1,200,000 per year, (plus use of a Royal Royce [sic] for his exclusive use where ever he goes, and an expense account that is rumoured to be well over $150,000.) Only pennies from the actual donations goes to the UNICEF cause (less than $0.14 per dollar of income).

If you can’t trust UNICEF, who can you trust?

The email goes on to take a dump on several other big-name charities, including the American Red Cross, United Way, and others, before claiming that the Salvation Army is the best charity based on the Canadian national Commissioner’s salary. It’s devastating: The biggest charities are little more than moneymaking scams?! Are you aghast? We were aghast.

Except it turns out that, like many viral email forwards, this one is bunk, for a number of reasons. First, it began circulating in 2005. Most of the executives named in the email are no longer holding those positions, and the information about them was inaccurate even then. Second, executive salary is not really the best metric of a charity’s impact. Not that we are entirely behind the idea of becoming a millionaire by heading up a charity — an idea that feels inherently contradictory — but the real statistic to watch is a charity’s efficiency. That is, the percentage of how much money goes to salaries, overhead, etc., versus how much goes to the actual cause.

According to Charity Navigator — a handy tool for learning where to send your contributions — UNICEF actually carries a rating of four out of four stars, delivers about 90% of funds raised to the intended programs and services, and while its current CEO does make six figures, that is .09% of the charity’s expenses. You’ll notice six figures is still less than half of what was claimed in that bogus email.

Real Bad Guys

That’s not to say every charity should be taken at face value. The rash of televangelical scandals (too many to link them all) is proof enough of that.

Back in 2013, a yearlong investigation into U.S. charities by the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that the country’s 50 worst charities had collectively raised $1.3 billion over ten years. Those billions did not go toward realizing the wishes of dying children or facilitating the treatment of cancer patients. $1 billion went to the telemarketers who raised the cash in the first place.

More recently, a man named James T. Reynolds, Sr., has been brought up on federal fraud charges for his four cancer “charities,” for whom the beneficiaries were allegedly limited to the Reynolds family. The charities — the Cancer Fund of America, the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, and the Breast Cancer Society — spent less than 3 percent of donations on cancer patients. The rest went to telemarketers, or lavish salaries and perks for staff.

The allegations are hair-raising, and almost enough to put us off the notion of charitable donations altogether.

So How Does One Pick a Charity?

In a word: Research. Don’t be taken in by fancy ad campaigns or pushy telemarketers.

Especially pushy telemarketers. Just hang up on those jerks — the highest-rated charities don’t even use such services, and for what it’s worth, we can practically guarantee they aren’t this cute.

Again, websites like Charity Navigator are invaluable in providing statistics and data to inform your charitable activities. Look for charities that are efficient enough that they put 70% of donations toward the cause they claim to champion.

Another possibility is to go local. When you donate to large, multinational charities, it’s hard to see where the money goes. But when you donate to a charity right in your own town, you can actually physically check out how they help your very own community.

Along similar lines, while these suggestions may or may not be tax-deductable, one can also donate other things than money: Old stuff that you don’t need anymore; food and toiletries for the homeless; your time as an actual boots-on-the-ground charity worker; or blood and platelets. Many animal shelters encourage people to come in and just spend time cuddling the animals. That doesn’t sound bad, does it?

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