Well, it’s that time of year again – you know, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, mistletoe and holly, and charities galore wanting us to give, give, give. It’s even worse than it is the rest of the year, and that’s bad enough. I mean, when was the last time you got through the lineup at your local grocery store without being asked if you’d like to donate a couple of dollars to some children’s charity or other? Of course Big Retail chooses kids’ charities to make them look like good corporate citizens, because hey, everyone cares about kids, right?
I wouldn’t exactly say that I don’t care, but I generally make it a habit to give only to animal charities. The reason for that is simple: I don’t have all kinds of money to give away, and when I do give some away, I figure it should be to benefit something I’m passionate about. That’s animals in general, and dogs in particular. There are so many of them soliciting money at this time of year, and I think that it’s important, when you donate to animal charities, that you make sure your money is going where you want it to go, and that the people who are receiving it are using it responsibly.
The following are some things to consider before you open up your wallet.
Do You Really Believe in the Cause?
Would you support this cause at any other time of the year, or are you just so caught up in the spirit of giving that you’re handing out money left, right and center? Do you shove a 20 at a canvasser just because you’re too busy right now to ask questions, or to say “Let me think about it?” That’s understandable – we’re all busy right now. But if you take that approach, you could end up short-changing animal charities that you would really feel good about supporting.
Also, make sure that you’re not letting terrible images of animals in distress make you more likely to write a check. Unless you do your research, you don’t really have any way of knowing that the money is really going to alleviate suffering.
What Are Your Goals?
Think about your specific concerns. Do you want to help with the problem of pet over-population? There are a number of ways to go about it – you could give to a neuter and spay program, donate to a rescue organization, or even write a check to your animal hospital, asking them to use the funds to help someone who is having trouble coming up with the money to spay or neuter.
If you worry about dogs living in poverty because their owners have fallen on hard times, instead of donating human food to the food bank this year, why not go there with some high quality dog food?
Shelter dogs always need your help, too (I talked about this in Your Local Animal Shelter Needs You), so again, if you are concerned about dogs that are not getting enough to eat, or the medical care they need, you could make a donation of money to your local shelter. If you can, also think about donating some time.
Do Your Research
Once you’ve decided on the cause or causes that mean the most to you, start doing your research. One of the best places to find information is on the charity’s website. Take a look at their mission statement, and read up on what they’ve accomplished over the past year. Is there a board of directors (if the charity is a 501(c)(3) group that can be given tax deductible donations, there has to be one)? Who are they? What are their qualifications? Who’s in charge?
Now, you’ve considered your goals, so what are the goals of the charity? Do they state clearly and specifically what they want to do and how they monitor their goals and evaluate success? Can you read reports? If you can, are they easy to understand, and are they in line with the mission statement? And of course, you need to know how they will spend the money that you give them.
This information should be easy to find. If it isn’t, but you still feel good about the charity, ask for the information. If it’s not forthcoming, and if they don’t get back to you in a timely fashion, cross them off your list.
Read the Financial Reports
Most people don’t really like doing this, but any time you’re considering donating to an animal charity, you should expect to be able to see the financial reports. You might find the reports on the website, and if they are income tax exempt, then they will have to file Form 990 annually with the IRS, and these forms are available to the public upon request. If they’re not a 501(c)(3) charity, then they won’t have to file the form, but you should still ask for financial reports. If any charity can’t (or won’t) tell you where the money goes, then don’t give them any.
How Much Money Actually Goes to Help Animals?
It’s a given that if you’re going to raise money, you will have to spend money. After all, not all staff will be volunteers; some will need to be paid. Promotional materials have to be created. Office space has to be maintained. You get the idea. However, if more than 35% of the donations received are going toward administration, those are not usually reasonable costs, and you might wish to look for another charity to support.
Keep in mind, though, that if the organization is new, there will have been startup costs. So if the ration of money spent on administration versus the amount devoted to programs seems out of whack, ask questions. There may have been special circumstances, so ask what they’re planning for the following year or financial quarter.
If the organization is not new, and you suspect a red flag, ask to see their financial reports for the last three years. Have they been able to grow their revenue, support programs and put a bit of money aside?
Consider Your Options
You can make a donation to any type of organizations. It doesn’t have to be not-for profit. Although, if it is, it does need to have 501(c)(3) status. To qualify, the organization has to be operating for charitable, religious, scientific, educational or literary purposes, or for public safety, or be a private foundation that makes donations directly to those types of causes. A 501(c)(3) organization may not be operating for profit.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that operating for profit is necessarily a bad thing. The organization may wish to make a profit so that it can offer more money to the causes it supports. Again, it’s a matter of finding out if their goals are in line with yours. Keep in mind, too, that if you are dealing with an organization that is for-profit, your donation will not be tax deductible.
Use available resources. GuideStar and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance can give you a lot of the information you need to make a good decision. You’ll discover that they’ve already done a good deal of the necessary legwork, and you’ll find reports on major programs and even document downloads like the 900 forms.
Narrow It Down Even Further
You don’t necessarily have to give money to a national charity; there are probably plenty of organizations right in your own backyard. Ask yourself, too, if you have a particular cause that touches you in a huge way. My friend Neila, for example, frequently donates to university programs that are researching canine cancer, because she has lost several Rottweilers to various forms of the disease.
You might also ask yourself if you would like to help a specific dog who is ill. There are programs – Magic Bullet Fund is one – that will allow you to select a specific dog to help. If you go to the Magic Bullet Fund website, you can read about dogs who are suffering from cancer and need help. Choose the one that tugs at your heartstrings and help that dog get the treatment they need.
Do You Have a Lot of Money?
I sure wish I did. I’d love to be able to give away piles and piles of money to dog charities. If you do have gobs of money to spare, you might consider creating a trust to fund a specific program or type of research. If you want to hold onto your wealth for the remainder of your life, consider making bequests to animal charities in your will.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s never a good idea to give personal information to anyone who comes to your door, phones you, or accosts you on the street asking for money. If you have any doubt that the person is on the up-and-up, call the charity yourself so that you can be sure you are dealing with the actual organization, and not someone running a scam. Also, never give cash.
Here’s another thing: if you’re totally softhearted when it comes to animals, but you’re finding things a bit tight, remember that your own dogs have to come first. If you’re buying a lower quality dog food than you’re accustomed to, or keeping your fingers crossed that your dog won’t have a veterinary emergency, don’t donate. If solicitations come by mail, don’t even open them.
It has become common practice in modern fundraising for charities to share, swap and sell their donor lists. If you don’t want your name on these mailing lists, request that your information not be shared.
If you’ve chosen a dog charity that you feel good about, don’t just blindly donate every year. Keep on following them, and look for any news reports that might mention the charity, or its executives, in a bad light. You have the Internet on your side with this; it’s not easy in this day and age to hide corruption or bad business practices.
For that matter, even if there’s nothing “off,” you should still check from time to time to make sure that you and the charity still have the same interests. You’re donating to a charity that’s in line with what you believe; you’re not married to them. So if things change down the road, and you are no longer pleased with what the organization’s goals are, you certainly don’t have to keep on giving them money just for old times’ sake.
If you do decide that you no longer want to support the charity, for whatever reason, they may start contacting you by phone. If you don’t want to hear from them, then ask them to take you off their calling lists.
What if You Have No Money?
I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been pretty poor, and I had to reluctantly turn down animal charities that I would very much have liked to support. If that sounds like you, you could let yourself drown in guilt, but please don’t. You can still do things to help dogs. Just as an example, you might have things around your home that you no longer need or want, but that an animal shelter would be very happy to have. You could donate that leash that turned out to be just a little too light for your dog, give the collar you’re your dog has outgrown, or offer a spare bowl, some old towels for bedding, or toys that your dog has become bored with.
It is the season for giving. If you can afford it, money is always appreciated by charities that are dedicated to dogs. If you have no money, consider a gift of goods, or perhaps your time. Even if you have no special skills, you could offer to do some filing, clean out kennels or walk dogs.
There is always something that you can do to enrich the life of a disadvantaged dog during the holiday season, or for that matter, at any other time of the year. So do your research, make sure that you’re giving to the charities and organizations that are in tune with your goals and values. Then, give freely of money if you can, and if you can’t give money, offer something else. And do it not just at this time of year; year round, there are always dogs who need our help.