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By Paul Downey

The holiday season is traditionally a time for charitable contributions to help those less fortunate. This, of course, coincides with the annual deluge of mail and phone calls from various charities asking for critical funds for their causes. But the questions are: how do you choose a charity and how do you know they will really put your money toward a good cause?

According to the recent annual report on the “State of Nonprofits and Philanthropy” by University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences, there are nearly 10,000 registered 501(c)(3) public charities in San Diego. This is a large number of charities to sift through to choose the “right” charity. My suggestion would be to first weed out the organizations not worthy of your support.

Many of us already have a handful of charities we trust and donate to annually. These are organizations where we have already done our “due diligence” and know where our dollars are going. For 2016, make a New Year’s resolution to create a charitable giving plan and choose organizations you want to support, determine how much you can afford to donate and when is the best time (for you) to give. You would not buy a new car without “kicking the tires” to see if it works, would you?

Paul Downey

Once you have an idea of the charities you are interested in supporting, start test-driving the organizations. There are several ways to do this. For instance, when communicating with a charity representative, let them know when you would like to donate. A legitimate charity will always be happy to receive your donation in whatever timeframe works best for you. Any organization that pressures you to “give now” should raise a red flag and be crossed off your list.

Not only should you be able to give when you can, but you should also receive updates on the impact your gift is making. A responsible charity will periodically provide news about how your donation is helping their organization. Be wary of any organization that is vague about where your money went.  Charities should be able to tell you specifically how donations are used and what portion of your contribution goes to assist those in need.  Ideally, at least 85 cents of every dollar raised should go directly to programs and services of the charitable organization, with the minimal amount remaining to underwrite rent, utilities and other operational expenses.

An easy way to scope out a charity is to request an in-person tour to see first-hand what the organization is doing. Better yet, show up unannounced. Also request copies of the organization’s 990 form (a charity’s tax return to the IRS) and a copy of the annual audit, which is different than an annual report (usually a distilled version of the audit). A reputable organization will be happy to accommodate and any hesitancy in providing an in-person tour or these documents is a cause for concern.

Another great source for information on charities is the Internet. Try visiting California Attorney General’s Registry of Charitable Trusts, GuideStar and Charity Navigator to check out your charities of choice. Or go to the organization’s website to get a good understanding of what the charity does and who benefits from your donation.

Here are some more quick tips to help you choose a legitimate organization and avoid being scammed:

  • Only give to a charity you know.
  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Make sure the organization has an actual street address where you can go and see the charity in action at anytime — do not send to a P.O. Box.
  • Never send cash or wire funds — always donate by check or credit card.
  • Take precaution when donating online. Make sure the charity has a secure donation link.
  • There should be no hard sell. Walk away from anyone who says you must donate today or offers to come by your house to pick up a check. A reputable charity will be delighted to accept a gift today, next week, next month or even next year.
  • Leverage your contribution. Often, reputable organizations will have donors who will match your contribution during their fundraising campaigns. This commitment by donors shows credibility. For example, right now at Serving Seniors thanks to a generous long-time donor, all donations will be matched dollar for dollar up to $100,000.

As mentioned, there are many fine charities in San Diego who do wonderful work and are worthy of your support. By following the tips above you will be assured your dollars are being spent well.

For two decades, Paul Downey has been the president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty for the last 45 years. Learn more at

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