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Harker Heights Evening Star
Harker Heights Evening Star

Vetting your nonprofits

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Lynette Sowell

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It’s hard to ignore a plea for help, especially where children, animals, cancer patients, the elderly and veterans are concerned. Some stories tug at the heartstrings, especially in one or all of those cases. It’s in our nature to want to do something when we see someone struggling, financially or otherwise. Even if it’s a dollar or two, we do.

But what about when the one making the plea for help might be less than entirely truthful about their plight, or worse, possibly making the entire thing up?

Recently, donation jars began springing up in the Austin area for a group called the Rising Angels Foundation. A picture on the jar by one restaurant’s cash register showed a child in a hospital bed. The sign on the jar also showed an Employee Identification Number (EIN) and contact information for the nonprofit. The restaurant owner said the jar collected about $400 a month which was picked up by the man who asked if the restaurant would keep the jar by its register.

An Austin news channel did some fact-checking and the Rising Angels Foundation’s EIN is no longer valid. Hmmm… Also, a little more checking showed the group’s 501(c)3 status is no longer valid. The address for the nonprofit is in a San Antonio strip mall, with nothing to indicate the nonprofit has its headquarters there. The contact numbers on the jar are good—but both men listed have felony records for robbery, armed robbery, theft and assault. There’s more, but in the end, there is no Rising Angels Foundation and no children are being helped by these donations.

Yikes.

Anyone else just a tad outraged that someone would misrepresent a group like that? Legitimate nonprofits will have a paper trail. They must file an annual form called a 990 (there are several types) in which nonprofits basically list how much they receive in donations, how much they pay employees (if any), name their assets (cash or property or otherwise) and how they spend the donations they receive.

We are so quick, sometimes, to “take someone’s word for it” if they are soliciting donations, especially if they are good salesmen and pull at the heartstrings where children, animals, cancer patients, the elderly and veterans are concerned (as above).

Does it matter to you, where your donations go? To some people, it doesn’t matter. But if it DOES matter to you, vet your nonprofits. Do a little fact-checking. The Foundation Center online maintains a national database of tens of thousands of nonprofit groups’ annual 990 forms. You can see exactly how much a nonprofit group has spent and on what.

Maybe you can’t find a 990 for a particular group. There can be a lag in the time between when something is submitted to when it is actually processed and available (that’s the government for you). But pay attention. Has your favorite nonprofit actually distributed any funds or resources? Do they continually make calls for donations but have little to show for when and where they distribute their funds? If they don’t have much to show for it – as in no media exposure, or are reluctant to invite the media in or answer questions – I would start wondering. A good nonprofit’s leaders should welcome questions about how and where they spend the donations they receive.

Some people give blindly, because the person asking for funds seems nice, and what’s wrong with us, if we don’t want to donate to help a veteran, a senior citizen, a cancer patient, or a sick child? But does it matter to you, how your donations are spent? Does the money stay locally or does it go to a national office where it helps pay for someone’s six-figure salary? If the money is spent locally, how is it spent? Does your favorite (or otherwise) nonprofit spend its money wisely? Does your favorite nonprofit have a record of publicly showing how they distribute their funds? Do they solicit donations for one thing, yet use them for something else? These are all questions someone could ask as they vet a nonprofit before they donate.

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