Five tips for giving to charity online

Before widespread Internet use, charities relied heavily on direct mail campaigns for their fund raising. That meant paying for paper, printing, and postage, which can really add to a charity's operating costs. The Internet has been a blessing for charities by allowing them to turn to free email solicitations and online payment options, as well as making it easier for donors to find them.

Unfortunately, the Internet also opens the door for scams disguised as charities, and of course all the risks associated with paying by credit card online instead of the old fashioned way, with a check in the mail. It's great that you want to give to charity -- but it's important that you do it responsibly.

From the American Institute of Philanthropy, here are 5 tips for donating wisely online:
  • Know your charity. You should never give money to a charity you know nothing about. Always be suspicious of online solicitations, and don't give until you've had a chance to review the charity's mission statement and annual report. Charities are legally required to tell donors how their money is spent. The AIP suggests that charities should spend no more than 40% of their income on administrative costs, meaning at least 60% of your donation should go directly to supporting the cause. Additionally, the charity's website should have clear information about where the operation is headquartered and how you can contact the organization, both online and offline.
  • Make sure your donation is secure. Any time you provide your credit card information online, you want to be sure the site you're using is secure. Look for "https" in the address, as well as padlock or unbroken key symbol at the bottom of the web page, indicating that you are on a secure site. If the charity stores donors' information online, be sure that they use up-to-date security measures to keep your information safe, or request that they delete your information after you make your donation.
  • Protect your privacy. Read the privacy statements before you submit any information over the Internet. If you can't understand or can't agree to the terms given, send your donation by check. Look for opt in and opt out options in the online form. In most cases, there will be a checkbox with something like "Yes, I would like to receive more information...." Agreeing to that is like begging for spam. If you want to keep up with the charity, all you have to do is check their website frequently.
  • Give directly. Avoid going through third parties to donate. Most charities these days allow you to donate directly through their own website. When you use a search engine to find a charity, you might be taken to a site that offers donations to hundreds of charities all from the same website. It's convenient, sure, but most sites like this will be taking a percentage off the top, or may hold your money for some time to earn interest before handing it over to the charity. That's not what you want.
  • Get a paper record of your donation. You should get a confirmation screen or email once your donation is complete. Print this off for your records. If you do not get a confirmation, contact the charity immediately to be sure they've received your donation, and ask that they send a receipt.
It's a shame that scammers would take advantage of strangers' kindness and generosity, but it happens. Follow these steps to protect not just yourself but all of your charitable causes. For more helpful hints about donating to charity, visit the American Institute of Philanthropy at www.charitywatch.org.

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