’Tis the season for bogus charities to rip us off

Published 11:00 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

OXFORD — ’Tis a week for turkey sandwiches and generous acts of sharing. Nothing wrong with that. The vast majority of Mississippians — even those facing joblessness, illness and loss — are, on average, a generally generous people.

Year after year the statisticians tell us we are the best givers per-capita of any state in the union. It’s a point of pride in a state sorely in need of points of pride.

We give to our churches. We give to the national biggies — Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way — and we give to health-related organizations such as Blair E. Batson, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and myriad others. Most Mississippi universities have a solid stable of alumni and friends who give, which is essential to their operations in an era of ever-declining allocations of tax funds.

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What’s not so good is that we are too often prey for faux charities.

What’s not so good is the ever-increasing number of P.T. Barnums who pluck at our heartstrings for dollars and, in turn, use our gifts to line their own pockets.

There are a couple of ways to detect ripoff organizations.

One benchmark is the name. Broadly speaking, the more desperate the name sounds, the less likely donations are, in fact, doing anyone (except the con artists) any good.

If you receive a solicitation from the “Association of State Troopers Who Were Wounded In Iraq and Have Children and Pets with Incurable Diseases,” odds are the founder drives a shiny Mercedes and keeps 95 cents of every dollar donated for “overhead.”

Now I know that sounds harsh because many state troopers are veterans. There are also children with incurable diseases. And neglect or abuse of defenseless animals is an abomination in our society.

But it’s true — and also an abomination — that cartels exist not to help them, but to separate us from our money in the name of sympathy, of wanting to do something about a problem.

The second detection method is a website of the Mississippi Secretary of State.

Governments can’t ban solicitations. It is not illegal to ask for money or, generally, to lie while doing so. But governments can — and Mississippi does — require charities to file annual reports showing donations received and how the money was split among “fundraising expenses,” “administrative expenses” and “charitable purpose expenses.”

The report also breaks down the totals into percentages. It’s a pretty good indicator of a group’s priorities if more than half of the money received is spent before any good works are done.

There are a couple of problems with the online report. One is that it is more than 500 pages. Another is that while it can be searched, it’s a bit of a technical challenge to do so. It would be very helpful to have a “friendlier” database and perhaps some guidelines or even a list of “suspect” organizations.

Another problem is this: There’s little reason to believe any group shameless enough to ask for donations under false pretenses would not also be callous enough to file bogus reports. But at least there are penalties and fines for doing so, even though such cases are not often prosecuted.

The list is still worth a pre-giving look. Especially if an organization is not listed or its non-charitable spending seems out of order, caution would be wise.

Of course, the best assurance that our gifts don’t help someone make a yacht payment and do help our neighbors in need is to give as locally as possible.

Most Mississippi communities have food banks that are well-run and are facing unprecedented demand. Most local schools have kids who would like to go on field trips, but their parents are struggling just to pay the light bill.

Sometimes it means giving up the tax deduction in order to slide a few twenties in the pocket of a friend whose child has been in the hospital, but the difference, well, is pretty profound.

It really is a blessing to live in a state where people, regardless of their own challenges, see needs and respond. To know that it happens every day, in ways large and small, is reassuring. There is a lot of bad in the world — including those who prey on the generosity of others. But there’s a lot of good in this state — and not just during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.