November 26, 2003
By EILEEN ALT POWELL, AP Business Writer
NEW YORK - Americans tend to get charitable around the holidays. For some, like Diane Dupuis and her family, it's a tradition.
Each year since the late 1980s, instead of giving presents, Dupuis has made holiday donations to charities in the names of her mother, husband, sister and other relatives. The "presents" she receives are donations they make in her name.
"We try to think about what the other people are up to in their lives," said Dupuis, of Traverse City, Mich. "We try to make donations that are meaningful."
That has translated to contributions to the Audubon Society for her mother, a bird watcher. A sister participated in an Avon Walk for Breast Cancer (news - web sites), so the sponsors got a donation. Dupuis, who is interested in American Indians, has had contributions to the new National Museum of the American Indian made in her name.
"For the kids, we still do traditional presents," said Dupuis, 45, who has a 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. "But for the grown-ups, we wanted to do more -- and wind up with less stuff."
Charities usually collect at least half of their contributions between Thanksgiving and the New Year as families prepare for Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. An incentive for donors is that charitable gifts must be made before the end of the year to qualify for tax deductions next April.
This year, gifts from individuals and families will be especially appreciated because institutional giving is down.
"Corporate, government and foundation giving is expected to be off by 10 percent for calendar year 2003," said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, which rates philanthropic organizations. He blamed the 2000-02 decline in the stock market and the less-than-robust economy.
With mailboxes already stuffed with charity requests, and solicitors out in force in the nation's shopping malls, how should consumers go about choosing a charity?
Stamp recommends people follow their passions.
"If you're interested in cleaning up your local river ... I'll bet you can find a nonprofit dedicated to cleaning up that river," he said. "The same goes for eradicating homelessness in your neighborhood, stopping the spread of AIDS (news - web sites) or supporting missionary efforts."
Stamp suggests that this year, Americans pay special attention to the arts, from museums to orchestras and galleries.
"They are really getting hammered disproportionately because states are in such budget trouble," Stamp said.
Naila Bolus, executive director of the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco, said the holidays are especially important for the group, which funds projects aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"Well over half of our money comes in at this time of the year," she said. "So far, fund-raising has been about on par with last year ... but it remains to be seen what people are able to do."
Bolus said the fund has been attractive to donors interested in peace and security issues "because they have confidence we're doing the research and know where best to put the dollars." The fund gives close to $5 million in grants each year to programs working to eradicate land mines, stop the flow of small arms to regions in conflict and limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
There are thousands of charities that focus on everything from animals to education, the environment, health, public needs and international causes.
Consumers who want to make sure an organization is on the up-and-up can check sites such as Charity Navigator at www.charitynavigator.org or www.guidestar.org, which maintains a large data base of nonprofit groups.
They also can consult the Better Business Bureau's www.give.org site, which sets standards for charitable groups. Local Better Business Bureaus and state attorneys general offices also keep track of registered charities.
The BBB advises consumers not to give cash. It suggests checks payable to the charity -- and never to the individual who is doing the solicitation.
And it says consumers "shouldn't be fooled by names that look impressive or that closely resemble the name of a well-known organization."
The BBB also recommends that consumers keep track of receipts and canceled checks to document their contributions at tax time.
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