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How to pick the right charity for the holidays

Nov. 24, 2012 - 09:00AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 24, 2012 - 09:00AM  |  
Donating to charity in someone's name can be a meaningful way to show your appreciation for that person who has everything. However, just because a charity is included in the Combined Federal Campaign doesn't mean it deserves your dollars. Do some additional research.
Donating to charity in someone's name can be a meaningful way to show your appreciation for that person who has everything. However, just because a charity is included in the Combined Federal Campaign doesn't mean it deserves your dollars. Do some additional research. ()
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During the holiday season, you may be pondering giving to charity, through the Combined Federal Campaign or elsewhere.

It's a great idea. Donating to charity in someone's name can be a meaningful way to show your appreciation for that person who has everything. Plus, every dollar counts for cash-strapped charities trying to make a difference when their donations may be down because of the economy.

Just because a charity is included in the Combined Federal Campaign doesn't mean it deserves your dollars, however. Do some additional research. Different charity rating organizations such as Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Watch and GuideStar have different methods for evaluating nonprofit organizations, and not every charity is rated by every group. But by checking out your charity with each of these raters, you'll see a pattern. Add an Internet search of the charity's name; you might be surprised what turns up.

The military community has a culture of being very giving, making you an attractive target for scam artists, said Brenda Linnington, director of the Better Business Bureau's Military Line.

"Scammers play on patriotism," she said, perhaps claiming, for example, that they will send care packages to the troops. They also play on the "taking care of our own" ethos of the military community.

And scam artists can be elusive, setting up shop on the Internet to sweep up your dollars, then disappearing into the night.

"Go with the tried and true that you know," Linnington advises. "Go with the well-established who are not going away tomorrow and who make a difference."

Be especially careful of charities that spring up in the wake of a catastrophe, such as Hurricane Sandy. Many of these are legitimate, but there are also people who want to get a buck out of soft-hearted people who don't take the time to check out a charity.

Linnington suggests going to the charity's website and looking at its board and leaders. Look at its successes.

A few examples of reputable military-related charities providing direct assistance to troops and families: the four military relief societies Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance; Fisher House Foundation; Armed Services YMCA; Semper Fi Fund; Operation Homefront; Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors; and USA Cares.

Here are some things to watch for when you're trying to make sure your donations get to people in need, according to the Federal Trade Commission:

Don't be fooled by a name. Keep in mind that just because a charity uses words such as "veterans" or "troops" or "military families" in its name, doesn't mean that veterans, troops or families will benefit from your donation. The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments do not endorse charities.

Ask questions. If you get a phone call from someone soliciting for a charity, or are approached by someone asking for money, ask questions. Ask if the caller is a paid fundraiser, who he works for, and the percentage of your donation that will go to the charity.

I recently received a phone call from someone claiming to be collecting donations for military families. I asked how the charity planned to get the items to military families, and which families qualified for assistance, and the caller couldn't answer.

Even if the solicitor is persistent, don't donate before you check out the charity. In addition to the national ratings organizations, contact the office in your state that regulates charities. Find your office at www.nasconet.org.

Don't give cash. It's best to pay by check payable to the charity, not to an individual who's asking you for money. Ask for a receipt showing the amount of the donation, and make sure it says it is tax deductible.

NEX rewards

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 8, Navy Exchange customers can get one $10 "Bonus Bucks" coupon for every $100 of merchandise or services purchased. Up to five coupons will be issued for each transaction. The Bonus Bucks can be redeemed at any Navy Exchange from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1 on merchandise and services, except uniforms, gas, tobacco, alcohol, gift cards and concession merchandise. One coupon can be redeemed on a purchase of $50 or more; a maximum of five coupons can be used on purchases of $250 or more.

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