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Editorial: Follow the (charity) money

Charitable drives that put more money into the pockets of professional fundraising firms than into the charities themselves are a perennial concern. A new report from the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office indicates that in 2009, many third-party marketers took an even bigger bite than usual.
Overall, the report says, only about 40 percent of the $282 million donated through professional third-party fundraising groups in North Carolina in the fiscal year that ended in July went to the charities on whose behalf they were soliciting money. The rest went to the fundraisers. That compares to 60 percent that went to charities in the previous reporting year.
A scan of the list shows how great the discrepancy can be. For instance, the American Cancer Society retained 97 percent of the $372,138 raised through InfoCision Management Corp., but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received only 13.4 percent of the $154,111 raised through Outreach Associates, Inc. Disabled Police Officers of America, Inc. received only 15 percent of the $128,859 raised through Nonprofit Services, Inc.
Some blame the recession for the higher percentage off the top. As contributions declined, the fundraisers still have to cover the costs of solicitation. “At one time, when the economy was better, you got 20 percent” of the money raised, said Ron Crawford, president of the North Carolina Troopers Association. “Now, we’re guaranteed 14 percent.”
No one’s suggesting that the charitable groups or the fundraising arms are doing anything illegal or unethical. But contributors have a right to some basic disclosures. They should be told upfront when donations are being sought by a third party and how much its take will be.
It’s important to note that not all charities use third-party fundraising companies. No Rowan County groups are listed as using third-party fundraisers in the most recent report. In fact, one of the advantages of giving to local community agencies is that you usually know exactly where your contributions are going and how they’re being used. The Rowan County United Way, for instance, relies on local volunteers and staff to do the heavy lifting on its annual fund drive. Many other local groups also solicit support directly without third-party help.
If you have questions about fundraising by a particular group, you can check for whether that group is listed by the Secretary of State’s Office in its most recent report. Reports are available online at www.sosnc.com. You might also check the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org and Guidestar, a national registry of charitable organizations at www.guidestar.com. The North Carolina Center for Non-Profits also has information related to the non-profit sector in North Carolina at www.ncnonprofits.org.
Give generously ó but also wisely.

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