How to give wisely and not get suckered this holiday season

Giving Tuesday is nearly upon us! Plaintive pitches and open palms abound. Do good! Spread cheer! But please, proceed with caution.

This is make-or-break season for charities. Nonprofits in America get the majority of their donations between October and December. Giving Tuesday — the one right after Thanksgiving, when heart and brain are still soft from all that turkey and pie — began more than a decade ago, in response to the (grotesque) consumerism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. A Chicago theater company urged shoppers to consider donating instead of/in addition to buying stuff. “Giving Tuesday” was coined by the 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation in 2012. And, well, here we are.

They’ll hit you up by phone, by mail, by email, and in the flesh, at malls and outside grocery stores. Greet each entreaty with “How much of my donation goes to programs?” and you’re well on your way to making sure your dollars go where you intend them to go. Here’s how not to be suckered, as per experts.

Don’t be fooled!

Their names echo well-run charities you’re familiar with and sound so angelic you can hear harps in the distance. Do not be suckered! These charities, for example, play on your sympathies but have earned big fat “F”s from CharityWatch (most often for spending most of their money on their own salaries and fundraising, rather than their purported mission): AdoptaPlatoon Soldier Support Effort, AMVETS National Service Foundation, Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, Homes for Veterans, Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, Mutts With A Mission, National Children’s Cancer Society, Operation Finally Home, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Planet Aid, SPCA International (SPCAI) and United Breast Cancer Foundation.

What to do?

Take a few minutes to do some online sleuthing. CharityWatch, Charity Navigator, Guidestar and others can show you how much a charity spends on its mission vs. how much it pays to raise money and pay employees. Some of the worst give just pennies on the dollar to whoever they claim to help. If the charity seeking your dollars devotes less than 65% to 75% of spending to its core programs and services, look elsewhere.

If you’re hit up in person or by phone and must engage in real-time, just ask some simple questions. How much does it spend on programs, on fundraising, on management? Keep an eye on that 65 to 75% bar. If they don’t know, don’t give.

How much does your CEO make? In its “Yikes! $1 Million Charity Salaries” piece, CharityWatch highlighted the 2021 haul of Chris Cox, past executive director for the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (it was $6.2 million, including $2.4 million as part of a litigation settlement and $3.7 million for his attorneys’ fees), and the multi-million dollar paydays for hospital head honchos. That latter have lives in their hands, of course.

Is the charity really a charity? It must have an Exempt Organization number from the Internal Revenue Service in order for your donation to be tax-deductible. Ask for it. This question forced a telemarketer to admit that the organization was for-profit; we hung up the phone. If the organization doesn’t have an EO number, walk away. You can check that out on the fly here: Also see California’s Registry of Charitable Trusts at

Be deliberate

Make your bigger year-end gifts with forethought. Do you want to help war-torn areas? Take a stand against gun violence, or for the Second Amendment, or for refugees, or the arts?  Find well-run charities on websites like Charity Navigator, Guidestar and CharityWatch.

Resist pressure

The folks on the phone and at the mall want to sign you up for recurring donations right now because they get paid for that. Take your time. Be wary of pushy telemarketers: These are most often commercial fundraisers who keep a huge chunk of your donation, and sometimes keep nearly all of it. If someone offers to send a courier to your home to pick up a donation check now, hang up and send a complaint to the Attorney General!

Beware when shopping

Finally, as you shop online this holiday season — and some 85% of us will, according to those who track these things — keep your wits about you. Scammers launch copycat websites of well-known retailers, and/or create sites offering popular items at crazy discounts. They’ll take your money, but you won’t get your stuff. Also avoid clicking on shopping links from social media sites. Instead, type the vendor’s address directly into your browser yourself.

Give your dollars the best chance of making a difference. Revel in the joy of wise giving this holiday season.

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