Thursday, July 14, 2011

Don't donate another cent online until you read this. Please.

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."

For more tips, check out "Evaluating charities not yet rated by CN."



  1. Guidestar is another good place to check.

  2. Hmm.
    I can't see where she (and you) are coming from, but the frank truth is that donating money to UCP isn't going to do a damn thing to help my son get the therapy he needs right now.
    I firmly believe the wonderfully generous people (granted, most of whom I knew IRL) who made our June fundraiser a success have immeasurably altered the course of his life.
    One bad apple (and BTW, we seem to have convicted this Marissa's Bunny already, eh?) should not spoil the barrel.

  3. I think some of what she is saying rings true, but I also have LOTS of friends raising money to adopt children overseas. Many times, they do EXACTLY what she made an example of: ask for a donation for a chance to win an iPad or a Kindle or a laptop.

    I KNOW these people are real. THey are trying to save children who are being put into adult insane assylums because they were born in a country where different means disposable.

    It is easy enough to check these things out with regard to adoption fund raisers, especially if they are adopting from Reeces Rainbow.

    I ask her to please think about the advice she is putting out there before she does it. Many families and children are counting on doantions to come home.

    THis whole situation has been badd enough on the special needs community, let's not make folks paranoid as well.


    BTW - Shasta - Mike from Marissa's Bunny ADMITTED all of this. Yep - we're convicting him. Especially those of us who's children are suffering the consequences of HIS actions. Thank you.

  4. Oops, I meant to say "can" see where you guys are coming from, not can't.

    And Steph: Oh, really? I hadn't read that. You seem to know a lot more about it than I do and I'll still reserve judgement on Mike, but that totally sucks that your kid(s) got their hopes up for nothing. :(

  5. UK charities are registered with the Charities Commission but you can still get burned. I supported a South American boy for a few years before I realised the charity I was paying in to was spending 85% on their religious literature. It was in the small print but I still felt robbed.
    They'd sold it as paying for things in the community like drainage, school, etc.
    The onus is on us to research the charity with so many scammers around.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Sorry, I deleted the comment above as I had to make corrections to my post! I'm typing from a phone which is not as easy as it seems!

    I definitely agree with Stephanie.... I would HATE to see people being less trusting of donating to "special needs" causes, ESPECIALLY adoptions associated with Reece's Rainbow. I hope that not too many people hear about the Marissa's Bunny fiasco just because it would be terrible if Mike (not only tarnished his own identity-whatever, who cares) but also shed a light of doubt unintentionally on those who ARE deserving & trustworthy. The thing about Marissa's Bunny is that people thought he was real. They thought they knew him. I do have to say though, the fact he never had any pictures of himself or the mother with Marissa does raise some red flags. (Correct me if I'm wrong & there ARE pictures.) So hopefully people who are adopting can provide pictures of their dossier, families, etc, to help alleviate people's fears or concerns about the validity of it all.

    I would also hope that if someone is paranoid, they can feel free to ask the blogger for more verification instead of just choosing not to help.

    Lastly, wow, I'm truly apologetic if this sounds terrible, but I do hope the authorities catch up with Mike. Regardless of whether or not he had good intentions, leading people on for that long is not acceptable.

  8. Shasta and Stephanie: I don't think she's saying to never donate to another family online in need. She's saying to be AWARE. All of us who have given in the past will continue to do so. And if someone has set up a foundation, I think we will be more diligent about checking to see that there is a foundation.

    Again, she's just saying to be aware because there are risks. And she said it's a personal decision, you should do what you feel comfortable with.

    Tasha, Reece's Rainbow is awesome. And people know it!

  9. Ellen - I keep looking for the "like" button for comments. LOL!


  10. I have the same problem with the proliferation of non-profits where NONE of the money goes to people in need, but to "educating the public" or "telling the stories of" or "raising awareness of" a particular issue.

    I think to myself -- seriously? We need another non-profit STORY about homelessness? Disability? Autism? Aren't we all pretty much aware of these things? Aren't there plenty of stories online, written by people who aren't charging to tell?

  11. i'm if you give to a charity that someone you know through the blogging world promotes, and their name doesn't show up, does that mean they're not registered or don't exist legally?

  12. Jane, I COMPLETELY agree.

    Jocalyn: Miniutti is talking about anything claiming to be a public charity/nonprofit. They have to be registered to make that claim, though if they are new the registration might not show up for a while.

  13. Stephanie - why is your profile not available to view?

  14. I have a few more interesting finds:

    Marissa's Dad goes by Marissa's Dad and Marissa's Bunny and Michael Wuerthele AND Biff Lugnut (as seen in SN Avenger's post in the other blog post about this event).

    I am also weirdly suspicious of Stephanie and KellyG, and I don't believe anyone should believe what they say - especially that they are prosicuting. This is for 4 reasons: 1) Their profiles are not able to be viewed by everyone, thus causing some questions about who they are. 2) They do not have blogs we can read or pictures of themselved in their blogs. 3) Both joined in the last 3 months - just as all this was about to break wide open. 4) They seem to know an awful lot about an awful lot.

    Sorry if you are real people. Send me a message on my blog with your phone number and I will call you to see if you're real.

    People still need to be diligent and (jointly) launch a legal investigation into whoever is behind this. Keep googling criminal records, phone numbers, Mike and Maria's e-mail address, etc. etc. which can be found in links I've posted on my comments in the last blog post about this.

  15. Here's another website where Mike goes under "Biff Lugnut". His last post was as early as yesterday.,author=156,match_type=USER_ID,match_dates=0,match_threads=0

    AND HERE HE IS SAYING THAT HE STILL HAS HIS JOB!!!,1185025,1185063#msg-1185063


    Here you can see all of his posts on this one website he comments on...and one of the comments is even for a person who doesn't have enough insurance to care for their sick child. Mike's comment says nothing like, "Oh, I went through that similar thing" or "You should add chipin to your site - I raised $29,000." ASS!

  17. I'm confused; does Marissa exist or not?


Thanks for sharing!

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