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Experts give advice on donating to charities

Published On: Feb 07 2013 10:28:10 PM CST   Updated On: Feb 08 2013 08:16:00 AM CST

Nissa Judd and her husband, Kevin, have worked hard to be able to give back -- and they take pride in their ability to do so.

"There are a lot of opportunities out there, and being a business owner, people approach me everywhere," Nissa Judd said.

The Judds own Affiliated Communications and Integral Building Systems in Middleton, and they are actively involved with a number of charitable organizations that touch their hearts. They do their homework when they're giving, but not everyone does.

Dane County has more 4,600 registered nonprofits, and many people are regularly asked for donations.

The requests for money come by telephone, by mail and even to one's front door. But Kimberly Hazen, regional director of the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin, said if people aren't careful, their donation could cost more than they might think.

"A professional fundraiser can take up to 90 percent of your donation for their fee," Hazen said.

Haze said consumers need to be smart about their hard-earned cash and have a plan in place that's always ready.

"If you don't have an action plan, you end up tending to consider each request as it happens, and you know that we all get so many requests every month, every year," Hazen said.

The Better Business Bureau said before you give, ask questions. Ask who is actually requesting money -- is it the charity itself, or a middle man? Experts said the middle man usually takes a percentage of a person's donation, which could be upwards of 90 percent.

BBB said people should also ask about the charity's finances. Haze says at least 65 cents of your dollar should go toward the actual mission of the nonprofit.

Haze said people should ask about the charity's leadership, how often their board meets and who's on the board. She said a solid board usually means a better-run organization.

When you give, experts remind consumers to give responsibly by always using a check or a credit card -- never cash. People also shouldn't give over the phone, because they never really know who they're giving to.

Hazen said people should also have a refusal script. They shouldn't be afraid to say no, and they should know how they're going to do it.

Hazen said the best advice she can give consumers is to figure out if the charity asking you for money really is a legitimate charity.

"The worrisome ones for us are the folks that are acting like a reputable charity," Haze said. "They may use the word 'cancer' or the word 'American' or some sort of word that makes you think they're part of the bigger one that we all know. But they're really not."

For generous donors, like the Judds, the research literally pays off.

"I look at annual reports. I talk to executive directors. I find out information to say, 'Hey, this is a good place to give.'" Nissa Judd said.

She said while it feels good to give, it feels even better knowing how far her dollar really goes.

"I think people probably don't realize that a portion of your dollar isn't getting to the people who need it," Judd said.

Experts said turning to the Web is a great way to research the charity you're interested in supporting. Website is a great place to start. It's an independent site that rates local and national charities based on their finances, the amount spent on programs verses administration costs, and other criteria.

To check on local charities, experts recommend searching the database held by the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. Every nonprofit in the state is required to register with WDFI, and from its website, people can request copies of a charity's financial records and annual reports, and also find contact information.

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