Charitable Mainly to Themselves : Some fund-raisers give only a pittance to the advertised recipients

After the recession, after the wildfires and mudslides and after the earthquake, two things can be said. The ranks of those in need have swollen, and the donating power of those who would help has been greatly diminished.

That's why it is so important to ensure that every charitable dollar goes as far as possible. One way to do that is to get to know the charity of your choice and donate directly. It would not make sense to waste money by giving to those organizations that are in it not to help others but to help only themselves.

Alas, just such mendacious firms can be licensed and bonded to operate as fund-raising organizations. Their clients are charities that are often too small to spend much time seeking donations. It's all part of an industry of 165 groups in the state that raise $100 million annually in charitable dollars . . . for profit. Some of them do excellent work; some do not. The law provides no limit on how much of that money these companies can keep. In fact, according to U.S. Supreme Court rulings, they are shielded from restrictions of that kind by the First Amendment.

A Burbank-based telemarketing firm called Valley Fundraisers is an example of what to avoid. It took in $500,000 in charitable contributions, but its client charities saw little of it. The American Wheelchair Veterans Assn., for example, received just 10.2% of the money Valley Fundraisers gathered on its behalf. That was legal.

Valley Fundraisers is now being investigated by state and local agencies, based on a Times story that alleges it received donations for nonexistent charities and real charities that it does not represent.

What should you do? Some fund-raising operations refuse to give you a mailing address and offer to send a courier to pick up your check. Watch out for them. You could also write to the National Charities Information Bureau for its "Wise Giving Guide" at Dept. 341, 19 Union Square West, N.Y., N.Y. 10003. It will list charities that spend most of their money on programs and not on administration. This is one case in which it pays to be better informed about your hard-earned goodwill.

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