Before you give:

Find out exactly who’s calling.

Ask if the caller is a paid telemarketer. Get the exact name and location of the charity he or she represents. Beware of charities that mimic the names of well-established groups and of claims that you’ve given before to a charity you’ve never heard of.

Find out exactly where your donation will go.

How much gets to the charity? How much does the fundraiser keep? Don’t let them brush your questions off with generalities. They know the exact percentage. Make them tell you.

Find out what they do with your money

Ask for examples of the charity’s good deeds. Beware of vague claims like “promoting awareness” or “educating the public.” And if the group claims to help a local veterans’ hospital or children’s burn camp, check it out. Call the local nonprofit that supposedly benefitted and ask if its ever heard of the charity that’s asking for your donation.

If you get a call, know there’s a cost

Cold-calling donors is one of the most expensive ways to raise money. Charities that use paid telemarketers often let the fundraisers keep 80 to 90 cents of every $1 raised. Most of the money you think is going to needy veterans or dying kids is paying telemarketers’ overhead and profit.

Hang up and give directly

If you get a call and want to give, don’t hand over your credit card number or start writing a check. Hang up and do some homework. A few quick Internet searches can uncover charities that have been criticized for high fundraising costs or unfulfilled promises. If the charity meets your standards, contact it directly. More of your donation will go to the cause you care about.

Resources

There are many resources to help you choose a good charity. Some state governments post giving guides. And charity watchdogs grade charities or post reviews from people who gave to a charity or received its assistance.

America’s worst charities (www.tampabay.com/americas-worst-charities)
Search charities and solicitors to see whether the­y’ve been disciplined by regulators and find out more details about how much money the 50 worst charities have paid to their solicitors and telemarketing operations in addition to what they actually spent on their cause over the past decade.

Florida Gift-Givers Guide (www.800helpfla.com)
Find out whether a charity is registered to solicit in Florida and get details of its latest IRS tax filing.

Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org)
This  website uses a four-star system to rate charities based on their financial performance and accountability. It also shows how the charity ranks compared to others doing similar work.

GuideStar (www.guidestar.com)
Find a charity’s latest IRS 990 filing and read personal reviews on this website. Access to recent IRS documents is free with registration.

CharityWatch (www.charitywatch.org)
This site grades about 600 large charities based on the amount spent on programs and the cost to raise money. Though some information is available for free, more in-depth information requires a $50 membership.

Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance (www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national)
The Better Business Bureau rates 1,400 charities based on 20 benchmarks found in the IRS 990 and audit reports. All reports are available for free online, searchable by charity name.

State charity offices (www.nasconet.org/documents/u-s-charity-offices)
The National Association of State Charity Officials lists the government agencies responsible for regulating charities and solicitors.

Kris Hundley

Kris Hundley joined the Tampa Bay Times 17 years ago as a business reporter. She is now a member of the Times’ investigative team.

Kendall Taggart is a former data reporter at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Her recent project, America's Worst Charities, exposed systemic weaknesses in state and federal oversight of nonprofits. The series, produced in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times, won the Barlett & Steele Award gold prize. Kendall also was part of the reporting team that uncovered flaws in the way school regulators in California inspect and certify public schools to ensure they are seismically safe. That series, On Shaky Ground, won the public service award from Scripps Howard and two awards from Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kendall is a Massachusetts native and graduate of Reed College. She has lived and worked in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Trujillo, Peru.