Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Charity Begins At Home

"True charity is the desire to be useful to others without thought of recompense." Emanuel Swedenborg

Last April I wrote Charity - A Sticky Subject about how to chose among pleas from charities and why. I'm reprising it here in an updated version. Because every year the stakes get bigger, but the message remains the same.

An op-ed piece in the New York Times nails it: In Charity, Too, the Rich Get Richer. The article refers to the massive amounts of money raised in response to the Tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma -- and to the fact that much of that money never reaches the victims.

[M]ost Americans are unaware that a shocking amount never ends up helping the people it was intended for. In some cases, agencies take in so much aid that they simply cannot spend it all on one disaster. Sometimes the newly flush groups do little because they have no significant history of working in the stricken area or no experience dealing with a particular type of disaster. Worse, some agencies use the money to push agendas that have little to do with victims' immediate needs.
Especially shocking to me is how much money taken in by the American Red Cross so far hasn't been spent on meaningful victim relief efforts.

The author, Richard M. Walden, president of Operation USA, an international relief agency, also takes on religious and quasi-religious groups (The Church of Scientology, for example) for aggressive fundraising with no government oversight or accountability.

That should be a no-brainer. Most thinking people are justifiably wary of evangelistic money raising schemes. And we don't let their "save your soul" tactics affect our charitable instincts.

We've become wary too of the government and major corporations' lack of restraint in managing money. Consider the billions spent on the War in Iraq, government pork and corporate slush funds.

Our tax, pension and investment dollars are already being squandered by the rich and powerful -- and they want us to dig deeper into our own pockets for disasters they had a hand in causing? I don't think so.

So what should we do? My mother has set the standard for my attitude toward giving with this reminder: Charity should be personal. Ignore the pitch, go with your gut. And do your homework.

Most charity these days is Big Business, and the more we tighten our wallets, the harder they battle for those dwindling dollars. My mother's top personal charity is The Foundation Fighting Blindness. She sits on the national board, and she's determined that donations go to the cause, not the collateral personnel.

My mother is virtually blind from Macular Degeneration, it's hereditary, her mother had it, my sisters and I will get it. She's passionately devoted to finding a cure for it, and for all diseases causing blindness. She's equally passionate about Breast Cancer Awareness (my two sisters, among others) and Heart Disease research (both her parents, as well as herself and my father).

So the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and the American Heart Association are high on my list of Personal Charities too. Along with the Cancer Research Fund - VHL Family Alliance, fighting the disease that's threatening my 9-year-old nephew.

There are others, but what's important is that my support comes only from my heart.

So what can you do to make sure your money goes to the charity of your choice and not into someone's pocket? Mr. Walden has this advice:

For starters, the same Internet that helps raise such large amounts of money can help compassionate Americans give wisely. A subtle reading of a charity's Web site can pay off, charity rating services can be consulted for basic financial data, and Google searches can turn up news reports of a charity's misdeeds. In addition, InterAction (of which my organization is a member) and other nonprofit groups have developed standards and ethics guidelines that may help potential donors.
You can also follow my mother's advice: Based on what you can afford to give, choose those charities that have real meaning to your life and your loved ones, and then give a little more.



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