I don't know about you but after all the murkiness and muck of what's been going on, I had questions about donating money online. Sandra Miniutti, the vice president of marketing and CFO for Charity Navigator, kindly answered some questions for me. The site is my go-to source for looking up charities, because it ranks them based on financial stability, and tells you how much of your $ goes to administrative costs—and how much actually goes to the people who need it. While Charity Navigator doesn’t touch on blogs, Miniutti—who’s been at CN since its launch in 2002—had good insights to offer. Take note, do-gooders: Your heart may be in the right place, you just want to make sure your money ends up in the right place, too. But you knew that.
What should people consider before making any donation online?
"I think you need to tread carefully, especially with issues that tug at the heartstings. Kids with special needs, sick children—those are the areas where we find the most unscrupulous behavior. And if you have a child like that, it’s a personal issue for you, and easy to get caught up. Be cautious, whether you’re sent emails with links to a cause, you see something on a blog, or you’re sent links on Facebook and Twitter. With the way technology is, it’s easy to set up a bogus website and solicit funds. There may not be a legit person or charity behind it."
How have things changed with online giving since you started at Charity Navigator?
"For one, the way scams operate has changed. For example, after Katrina, the FBI found 4000 bogus websites. When people entered their personal information, both their money and identity got stolen. Many were set up by people overseas. They created websites that look like real charity sites, with names like KatrinaHurricane that sounded legit."
For those of us who know so many families’ personal stories from the blogosphere, and who really want to help kids in need, what do you recommend?
"I first recommend investing in a charity that’s helping families or with research, unless you know the person firsthand. Less altruistically, you’re not eligible for a tax deduction if you give money to something that is not a public charity."
This is tricky territory. I “know” families online, even though I’ve never met them in person…at least I think I know them. What to do?
"It’s risky. Unless you know the person, I wouldn’t be giving through a blog. My son had a friend this year who got sick, his family put up a personal blog. I knew them in the real world and so I felt comfortable supporting them. I wouldn’t feel the same about someone I haven’t met. You have to weigh the risks. Will you feel burned if your money doesn’t go where it’s supposed to? It’s a personal choice."
There are bloggers in the special needs community who are well respected and who have helped raise money for people in need. What do you think about that?
"If someone is known in the community, is a thought leader, has a good following and has been around, that’s safer. I think the majority of people are trying to help each other. But you still have to be careful!"
Widgets like ChipIn! and tip jars have made it easy to donate money online.
"There’s a proliferation of them, and you need to make sure your personal information is secure if you donate through a widget. Look up how the widget works."
What are your thoughts on bloggers who do giveaways and simultaneously ask for donations?
"It’s not an area Charity Navigator focuses on—we’re looking at legitimate charities and what they’re filing. But if it doesn’t pass your smell test, beware. Also, regarding anonymous bosses who are supposed to be matching funds—I've never seen a corporation who didn’t want to shout from the rooftops about being charitable. Most companies want the public goodwill, and make sure everyone knows. It’s unusual for a corporation to remain anonymous when giving."
How can you make sure a nonprofit is valid?
"You can see if they have an Employee Identification Number—a charity tax ID number. A lot of charities do display their EIN number. If one doesn’t, email and ask. You can also check Publication 78 on the IRS website to see if they have nonprofit status, although depending on when they filed, they might not yet be listed. That said, it’s very easy to get nonprofit status—there are a million charities in the US, and not a lot of barriers to entry. The IRS is not vetting them, they’re not checking on the ethics of a foundation or charity, or financial stability or results or any of that. There are not much checks and balances. It’s like the Wild West out there."