Read This Before You Donate to an Animal Charity

Want to donate to an animal rescue charity? Make sure you know how your money is being used first.

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Many of us feel passionate about helping homeless or abused animals. It’s often not realistic to physically help each one, but we can do our part to assist others in that mission by donating to worthy charities dedicated to helping out those in need.

Aristotle had it right when he said “To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it and how large and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.”

How can we know that our hard-earned money is going to the right place? How can we be sure the charities we donate to are legitimate and will use our funds to help further a cause that we believe in?

By doing a bit of research before writing that check or clicking the “donate now” button online, we can make sure the money we give will go to an honest, charitable organization, and make the world just a little bit better for animals one dollar at a time.

Steps before you donate:

• Don’t automatically believe every nonprofit is truly a charitable group. When in doubt, do a search on the IRS website, which lists organizations that are eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable donations. If the group is anything but a church, synagogue or other place of worship, it should have filed this form with the federal government.  Study the marketing materials. If the group is pumping out expensive mailers, tearful commercials or heartstring-pulling pamphlets instead of explaining what the problem is and what the group will do about it, think twice before donating. Charities that explain how your money will assist in tackling the problem at hand are on the right track. This is not to say that all groups producing emotional and expensive marketing materials are more focused on getting donations than helping animals. But it does mean you should research to make sure this group spends an appropriate amount of its revenue on the animals they serve and that these groups have programs you support.

• Look at the numbers. Research your organization of choice online and see where the money goes. Financial experts, such as those at Bankrate.com, recommend that at least 60 percent of donated funds be allotted to the organization’s program or services. But don’t automatically dismiss a group just because it spends a bit more on marketing or administrative costs, especially if that group is brand new and trying to become established. Analyze each group individually.

• Search online for any news reports of the organization to see if any malfeasance or improper practices are making headlines. Also, Google the group’s name along with the word “scam” to see what pops up.

• Obtain all of the basic information about the charity, such as address, mission statement, board of directors and telephone number. It can’t hurt to call the group first to ask any questions you might have before donating. Legitimate groups are proud to share their story.

GINA CIOLI/I-5 STUDIO Ask yourself, do you want your money to go toward saving pets in your area, or would you like to help further a larger cause, like changing puppymill laws in your state?
GINA CIOLI/I-5 STUDIO
Ask yourself, do you want your money to go toward saving pets in your area, or would you like to help further a larger cause, like changing puppymill laws in your state?

Watch out for groups that:

• Ask for cash-only donations or request that you wire money. It’s best to always pay by check or credit/debit card. Cash is too easy to steal, either in transit or once it reaches its destination. There is no way to track it, and no way to see who eventually receives it. Checks and credit cards leave a paper trail, and this might protect you in the event the charity is fraudulent. But note: this is not to say donating $10 into a bucket at a local shelter’s charity fundraiser is to be avoided. Just be careful if the charity asks to mail in ONLY cash. Tracking your donations also pays off if you want to deduct them at tax time.

• Use the bulk of donations for anything other than the program’s mission.

• Won’t provide requested information (ID numbers, forms, mission, location, etc.).

• Have names very similar to well-known organizations. Although not necessarily a deceitful thing, it does raise flags. It might be that the group is unscrupulous and is trying to solicit donations by confusing people into thinking it is a different, legitimate group.

• Use scare tactics (“this dog will die TOMORROW unless you donate right now!”) to get your money.

• Pop up right after a large-scale disaster or tragedy. These new groups might be legitimate, but they are often too new to have a proper infrastructure and operating agenda. And some are just downright fraudulent.

• Claim they are operating on behalf of a local organization. When in doubt, call that local group to confirm the claims.

Research sites

Many online sites allow you to perform a comprehensive analysis of charitable organizations before you write a check. Top websites include:

Charity Navigator: Uses a four-star system to rate more than 10,000 charities on everything from financial health to transparency. Just type in a name or search term to find out more. Becoming a registered user is free and enables you to access even more information.

BBB’s National Charity Report Index: Analyzes how more than 11,000 groups spend money, disclose information, allocate money to fundraising and run their organizations.

Guidestar: Allows users to find many documents and forms, such as Form 990, tax returns, IRS records, annual reports, executive expenses and financial statements. The “Impact” tab is extremely helpful, filled with information about the groups’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as expert opinions.

American Institute for Philanthropy: An independent watchdog group that grades charities on their fundraising costs, program funding and assets. This site requires a donation to access all of the information through a CharityWatch membership.

Great Nonprofits: Lists experiences and comments from donors, volunteers and beneficiaries of more than 6,500 nonprofit groups.

What does 501(c)(3) mean?

A nonprofit organization has been approved by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt, charitable organization. It is regulated and administered by the U.S. Department of Treasury through the IRS. Most donations to these groups are tax deductible for donors.

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Kyra Kirkwood

Kyra Kirkwood is a Southern California-based writer. When she is not teaching, writing or blogging, she enjoys spending time with her husband, two young children and specials-needs rescue dog, Ralph. Follow her at kyrakirkwood.com, Twitter, and Facebook.

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