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When giving money, proceed with caution

By Mike Sever Record-Courier staff writer Published: March 2, 1998 12:00 AM

How many times have you answered your phone to find a voice on the other end pleading for a donation to benefit a local fire, police, veterans' or children's agency?

If you can resist the tug on your heart and your wallet for a few seconds, you may save yourself a few dollars and the feeling of being taken.

Business, charity and state officials all say potential donors should get detailed answers to their questions before they donate money.

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Recently a Windham man was solicited for a donation to a statewide association. The man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was told the money would help local firefighters. But a local fire chief told him the department receives no funds from the association, the man said.

According to literature sent to him, the association promotes fire safety and educates firefighters through its official publication. It does not claim to directly fund local firefighters.

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"We have had consumers say they were told a variety of things, including that funds were going toward local groups," said Jason Steward, advertising and charity review manager for the Akron Better Business Bureau.

"One drastic claim, especially by phone solicitors saying they represent fire or police groups is that, if they donate, they might get out of their next ticket. Basically, it's a solicitor saying you'll have a sticker you can put in your window and the police officer will look the other way. That is entirely untrue," Steward said.

"Police have said if you come across a solicitor who says that, that is a big red flag" about the legitimacy of the fund-raiser," he said.

Bob Gragson, president of the Portage County United Way for two years, said the United Way tries to dissuade local charities from using professional fund-raisers.

"I think a lot of times the charities don't realize what they're buying into when they get into those relationships. It doesn't help their organization." Professionals often take a significant cut of the money raised, Gragson said.

The local United Way funds 18 organizations, "and they have to have a local presence," he said. The United Way doesn't have local groups using paid solicitors to raise additional funds.

"It's just not a good practice," Gragson said.

There is no limit on how much has to go to the charities, said Susan Verble, a spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General's Office. On average, 25 percent of total collections goes to the charity, she said.

"Keep in mind these professional solicitors are for-profit companies. You'd be surprised how many campaigns are less than that 25 percent," Verble said.

For example, according to the contract filed with the attorney general's office, the association that contacted the Windham man has contracted with Midwest Publishing-OH, Inc. to do fund-raising in exchange for 86 percent of the funds raised.

The BBB's standard is that no more than 35 cents on the dollar go for fund-raising costs, and that no less than 50 cents of every dollar go toward what the charity was founded to provide, Steward said.

Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office distributes a brochure, "Charitable Giving: Making Your Dollars Count," that lists tips to making informed decisions.

State law requires most organizations that solicit contributions to register with the Attorney General's Charitable Foundations section. Certain charities, like religious and educational organizations are exempt from registration, Verble said.

Better Business Bureaus also have information available on local charities, Steward said. The BBB does not judge the worthiness of a charitable organization _ just on how it measures up to the BBB guidelines, which were developed in cooperation with national charities and the Council of Better Business Bureaus Philanthropic Advisory Service.

"We do issue reports on charities, both on local and national levels. We have 23 standards for charitable solicitations," he said. "Of those guidelines for charities, the most important is the fund raising cost _ how much goes to the charity, how much goes for fund-raising costs."

Take your time in deciding whether to donate, Steward advises.

"Ask for something in writing to give you the time to look it over. A lot of times when you say that, they'll say thank you and hang up. The legitimate ones will send something," he said. "And be wary of charities that say they need your donation right now."

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