I admit it! I can sometimes be an impulsive donor. There are times when I don't think twice about pulling a $20 bill out of my wallet for the Salvation Army's holiday bell-ringers; putting a little extra in the offering plate at church when I've been moved by the preacher's sermon; or handing over the $10 donation to the school car wash or doughnut sale (a small price for a dozen of those fresh Krispy Kreme Doughnuts).
I'm OK with this level of impulsiveness because it is typically limited to organizations that I know really well - church, school booster clubs, or a great charity like the Salvation Army. But when it comes to organizations that I don't have have a close relationship with, who aren't publicly scrutinized on a regular basis, or that I just don't know a lot about, I'm a bit more deliberate in my philanthropy - and with good reason. With over a million registered nonprofits in the United States, it's sometimes hard to know where the really good work is getting done.
There are lots of ways that the IRS and charity watchdogs help us by making sure that organizations are legitimate and making their financial information available. But it is up to you and me to make sure that those who are asking us to invest in their missions are doing work that we believe in, and doing it well. I suggest that the next time you are asked to contribute to an organization, ask three questions before pulling out your wallet or checkbook:
- How will my gift be used?
- What difference will it make to those being served?
- How will I know?
Think about it. These are relatively easy things to answer when you are up close and personal with an organization like your kid's sports team, band, or church youth group. You should have a similar level of comfort when making a contribution to any organization that invites you to invest in their mission.
Don't be hesitant to do a little research. Ask around. Check the organization's web site. Every nonprofit should be ready and willing to earn the trust of their donors by being honest and transparent with them. Make sure you know that your investment is being put to good use.
Join our conversation and let us know what questions you'd like to ask nonprofits.
Bert Armstrong is co-founder and principal with Armstrong McGuire & Associates.