A senior receives food
A senior receives food during the pandemic in 2020. Courtesy of Serving Seniors

As days shorten, the weather cools, and pumpkin spice is everywhere, we know the holiday season is just ahead. For nonprofit organizations like Serving Seniors, the holiday season can determine our ability to provide services and support to San Diego’s low-income and homeless older adults.

Nearly one third of all charitable giving takes place in December; 12% takes place the last three days of the year. One in four nonprofit organizations raise half of their total donations for the year during the holidays.

The impulse to help others is among humanity’s greatest purposes — but it can be too trusting. Two-thirds of the people who make donations don’t do any research before giving. They don’t check an organization’s ratings, visit its website, or read its annual report.

International Charity Fraud Awareness Week is currently underway, timed to coincide with the start of the time of year when people give most generously to nonprofit organizations like ours. After 26 years as CEO of Serving Seniors, it’s still humbling and overwhelming to be supported through the generosity of our donors. Many of them share what little they have with us because they believe in our mission, and these gifts are especially meaningful to me.

It is vital to ensure charitable donations are used wisely, well, and efficiently — and that they don’t end up in the hands of people who take advantage of the human impulse to help. There are several easy ways to be sure your contribution makes a real impact.

First, check one of the watchdog websites which study and rate nonprofit organizations. Two of the most respected are Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. For example, Serving Seniors is top rated on both websites. Any legitimate, reputable charity will encourage you to look up their ratings.

You can also check with the Internal Revenue Service and state level nonprofit registries to check their status. In the state of California, the Attorney General regulates charities.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends this quick tip to catch a charity scam: Do an online search for a nonprofit’s name, or the type of service it provides, along with terms like “highly rated,” “complaints,” or “scam.”

Don’t click on links in social media or in emails or text messages you receive from any organization you don’t already know. If the group interests you, visit its website instead. Or here’s an old-fashioned idea: pick up your phone and call us!

Don’t ever enter your personal or financial information like a Social Security number, date of birth, or bank account number to anyone soliciting a donation. Serving Seniors will never ask for this kind of information.

Give using credit cards or checks. These can be tracked. Keep a record of all your donations and review your bank and credit card accounts frequently to make sure you aren’t charged more than you agreed to give or signed up for a monthly donation program when you didn’t mean to do so.

Be especially cautious about crowdfunding accounts like GoFundMe or social media posts. Some of these are legitimate, but the people setting up the accounts do not have to prove they are legitimate.

Any nonprofit organization has an obligation to provide detailed information to interested donors. You can request information in writing including the latest annual report. They are often posted online. Serving Seniors makes our latest annual report available on our website. We encourage people to read it. Reconsider giving to any nonprofit if you can’t get this information.

No organization should pressure you into contributing immediately, or make you feel beholden to give by sending unsolicited “gifts” like mailing labels, greeting cards, or calendars. It is against the law to demand payment for unordered merchandise.

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. The vast majority work hard to address so many of society’s needs. And this has certainly been the case during the last 18 months during the coronavirus pandemic.

Without the support of our donors, Serving Seniors wouldn’t have been able to step up and triple the number of meals served to our low-income and homeless older adult clients. These meals were a lifeline helping people get through many dark days.

The competition for donations during the holidays can seem intense. Because of the pandemic, so many nonprofits have an increased demand for services at a time when resources are shrinking, and they are asked to do more with less.

Once you do your homework and find a nonprofit organization doing work you believe in, please give generously if you can do so. In my role I’m fortunate to talk directly with the people who benefit from our services, and without a doubt every donation changes someone’s life for the better in a real and meaningful way.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.