Americans are showing their true spirit and donating at record-breaking levels to support those suffering because of the devastation of hurricanes and other natural disasters. It should come as no surprise – Americans are the most charitable people on earth, and when fellow Americans are in need we all rise to the occasion. It is part of our culture that it feels better to give than to receive, and charitable donations allow people to make a significant difference. It’s important to donate generously to support the organizations doing the hard work in all of the impacted communities. However, it also important to be well informed as you make your donations and provide other means of support.

When giving, choose a charity that is active now in the impacted areas. We will provide updates on those of our DMA Nonprofit Federation member organizations providing aid. DMA CEO Tom Benton recently posted a blog with organizations working on hurricane relief efforts. If you are interested in a charity that you haven’t heard of, consider the following basic tips:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask – “How will my donation be used?” The organization should provide detailed information up front and a contact reference after the campaign. An organization’s website is usually the place to find information about how your donation will be used. Be wary if you cannot easily find contact information so that you can get questions answered.
  2. Feel free to ask for financial information from the organization. For most organizations, IRS Form 990’s are available online at guidestar.org. In all events, any organization should provide you with either its annual report or IRS Form 990 upon request. Ask a new organization or a religious organization (many religious organizations are not required to file Form 990) what financial information is currently available. Legitimate organizations want to be transparent and open about their finances and their results because they know they will receive additional support as a trusted organization.
  3. Donate by check or credit card: Legitimate organizations will always take a check or credit card. Be cautious if you are considering donating cash to organizations with which you are not already familiar.
  4. Protect your data. The organization should have a clear privacy policy for the use of personal information it collects. The privacy policy is located on the organization’s website. Sensitive personal information such as your social security number, your mother’s maiden name, and PIN access are not sought by legitimate organizations.
  5. Be cautious of high-pressure tactics! Legitimate organizations are professional and courteous when asking for your support.
  6. If you are contacted by telephone, ask about the caller’s relationship to the organization. A legitimate organization may use the services of professional fundraisers, volunteers, and staff, depending on the needs of that particular organization. In all instances, a donor should expect that callers readily explain who they are and why they are calling. Ask for the caller’s callback information and address if there is cause for concern.
  7. Be careful of email spoofing. When donating online, be careful of “spoofing,” which is accomplished by clicking on a link from an e-mail that appears to be sent from a legitimate source. The e-mail may have the logo and even the correct “sent from” source. Furthermore, the site link may even look like the real organization. To avoid this, go to the organization’s web site directly. If you are unsure of the web address, go to your favorite search engine and enter the organization’s name.
  8. Secure your online donations. When donating online, make sure that you enter your personal information only on a site that is secured. Secured sites will have the “lock” icon in your browser.
  9. Don’t be afraid to get expert advice: State officials monitor charitable activity – and today most states require charitable organizations that solicit funds from the public to register, usually with either the Attorney General or Secretary of State. The respective office in your state can tell you if an organization is registered with the state (each state affords registration exemptions to religious and a variety of other organization types). If you believe fraudulent activity is taking place, please report it immediately to prevent further harm. Contact information for these offices, including links to the respective Web sites can be found at nasconet.org. If your state is not listed, call your attorney general’s consumer assistance line.
  10. Giving to accountable organizations is vitally important. Finally, if a solicitation from an organization you do not know concerns you, reach out to learn more. Legitimate organizations will provide you with detailed information upon request—although they may need to provide further updates if they are in the midst of providing immediate help due to the emergency. If you are not satisfied with the response, send your donation to an organization you know and trust – giving with your heart should be tempered with your good judgement.

For questions or comments, contact Xenia “Senny” Boone, DMANF Executive Director & General Counsel (sboone@thedma.org.)

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