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How To Avoid Mistakes While Donating To Charities


Donating to good causes around the holiday season can actually be a pretty daunting process. There are a lot of registered charities out there to pick from. And then there's never a shortage of scammers who are looking to take money out of generous donors' hands.

So how do you go about identifying a worthy charity while avoiding being taken advantage of? Well, let's ask someone who knows. It's Michael Thatcher. He's the CEO and president of Charity Navigator. They're the nation's largest online evaluator of charities, and he joins me from Boston.

Mr. Thatcher, welcome.

MICHAEL THATCHER: Thank you very much for having me.

GREENE: Well, thanks for taking the time. So what are some of the biggest mistakes people make when they're looking to be generous this time of year?

THATCHER: I think one thing that happens is that we will react too quickly. So we get caught up in the energy of someone pitching something, and we don't think before we give.

GREENE: It's like, this cause sounds like something really important; I've got to give money right now and make this happen.

THATCHER: Exactly. It sounds fantastic. The story is very compelling. And I just write a check. One thing to do is just take that breath and think a little bit and do a quick spot check. The simplest thing you can do - is it a registered nonprofit in the United States? Easy way to do that is come to Charity Navigator. If it's registered, you'll find it in the database. If it's not, you should be asking yourself some questions.

GREENE: So any place that is registered as a nonprofit, does that mean they're at least legit, or do you need to do more research in certain cases?

THATCHER: I would do more research in the sense that you want to be - first of all, you want to be proactive in your giving. You want to start by really identifying - what are the things that I care about? Once you know that you have a legitimate organization that you're giving to, then how are they actually - how do they function?

GREENE: Sometimes groups try to get you to give immediately. Like, they'll say, if you give in the next 24 hours, you know, we're going to have - we're going to match the gift, or some corporation is going to match the gift. Are you saying we should resist that kind of pressure and just take our time to make these decisions?

THATCHER: Matching gifts and matching grant campaigns that are run by organizations are actually quite successful. And you normally have a 24-hour period within which you can make your donation. So you may get pressured, but I think it's always worth taking some time.

GREENE: What are some of the scams out there? Like, what are some of the worst you've seen?

THATCHER: I think the worst scams are literally fake charities. And they tend to pop up at times of crisis. For example, there's been a tsunami in Indonesia. You may have some look-alike name organizations that appear at that time. Be careful. Give to a reputable organization that's actually doing disaster cleanup in something - in a situation like this.

GREENE: There are probably some people who are thinking - all right, you're telling us it doesn't take them much time to research. But I don't have much time at all. So I'm just going to give to an organization that has name recognition like a Red Cross or a Salvation Army. Is that money well-spent if you make a decision like that?

THATCHER: Giving to the big-name reputable organizations generally is a good thing. But you need to do a little bit more digging. And why not call them up and say, hey, I've got a certain amount of money I want to give to you; I want to know what you're going to do with it? And then, secondarily, if you start supporting an organization, you really ought to feel comfortable calling them up next year at this time. Say, how'd you do with the money that I gave you? Think of it as an investment. You track your investments. Track your giving.

GREENE: Do some follow-up.

THATCHER: Absolutely.

GREENE: Hold them accountable, and see where your money was spent.


GREENE: All right, Michael Thatcher is the CEO and president of Charity Navigator. They're The largest online evaluator of charities.

Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

THATCHER: Thank you. Delighted to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.