November 12, 2001
Guest Editorial: Giving with confidence
by Robert Hirshon, President, American Bar Association
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans have given to private charities in unprecedented amounts - more than $675 million as of Oct.1 - to help the victims of these vicious assaults. But just as the attacks brought out the best in some people, they have brought out the worst in a few. There is growing evidence that some of the funds established in the wake of the attacks may be shams, designed to take advantage of Americans' grief and generosity.
The American Bar Association Section of Taxation has some common-sense suggestions to help ensure that the money you give goes where you intended it to go. And while a tax deduction may be the last thing on your mind right now, this advice will also help you claim any tax deduction to which you are legally entitled.
Do your homework - With so many new organizations being founded, you may be approached by one you have never heard of. You owe it to yourself and to the victims to make sure that the organization is legitimate, especially if you receive a phone solicitation. Ask where you can learn more about the group. Do your research and then decide if you want to give.
Protect your personal information - Don't give out information like a credit card or Social Security number to an organization you don't know. Again, do your research and then contact the organization directly.
Ask how your money will be used and how much will go for overhead - Some sham organizations funnel donations into overhead expenses like excessively high salaries, and spend little on the people they are supposed to help.
If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is - Beware of pitches that sound too good to be true - like promises that your gift will be matched dollar-for-dollar by a corporation you have never heard of.
Understand the organization's tax status - Most legitimate charities have either obtained or applied for tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. Only contributions to tax-exempt charities are tax deductible.
Contribute by check or credit card - Not only are these more difficult for an illegitimate charity to misuse than cash, but they are easier to track for tax purposes.
If you are planning to make a substantial donation, talk to a tax professional - Lawyers, accountants and other professionals who are qualified to represent taxpayers before the IRS are the ones who understand the ins and outs of giving. Consider consulting one of them, to protect both yourself and those you want to help.
If you'd like more help, the ABA Tax Section's Web site - www.abanet.org/tax - contains information to help identify legitimate charities and get the proper tax benefits for gifts. There are also links on the complex tax questions that have surfaced due to the attacks.