Charities: Where Are My Donations Really Going?

November 25, 2008

Ready or not, the holiday season is just around the corner. For many charities, it is the most important time of year to raise a significant part of their annual budget.

More than 80% of the money raised by charities in this country comes from individuals. This holiday season, when solicited by fundraisers, the Better Business Bureau urges donors to give with their heads and not just with their hearts.

Giving responsibly is the best way to protect legitimate charities and those they serve, and that means avoiding organizations that spend the lion’s share of revenue on administration or fund raising costs instead of program services you intend to support.

To assist donors evaluate the solicitations they receive, the BBB has developed 20 standards for organizations seeking public support. These standards include how funds are used, who runs the organization, and their fundraising tactics.

If you do not have prior knowledge of a soliciting organization, ask questions, and do not donate until you have answers. Legitimate organizations will welcome your interest and provide the information you request. The BBB advises that you:

  1. Do not send cash. Make checks payable to the organization.
  2. Keep records of your donations (receipts, cancelled checks, bank statements, transportation costs if you’re a volunteer, etc).
  3. Don’t be fooled by charity names that look impressive or similar to major organizations.
  4. Ask what charity will benefit from your donation and how.

Keep in mind that “tax exempt” does not necessarily mean that contributions are tax deductible. “Tax exempt” means the organization does not have to pay taxes. “Tax Deductible” means the donor may be able to deduct contributions to the organization on his or her federal income tax return.

When donating items, consider the following:

  1. Tax deductions for donated goods are available if you itemize deductions on your returns.
  2. Make a list of the items you’re donating. If you have photos, attach them. It is your responsibility to assign and be able to support the value of the goods you donate.
  3. If you donate a single item valued at over $500 you will need to include a qualified appraisal with your tax return.
  4. If the cumulative amount of non-cash deductions is over $500, you will need to complete and attach IRS Form 8283 to your next tax return.
  5. The donation is probably not deductible if you are providing goods directly to a for-profit resale store or if your merchandise is sold on a consignment basis in which you get a percentage of the sale.

For tax tips, visit Before donating to charity this holiday season, check with your local BBB to get a free report on the organization. Visit