From the street corner Santa to the pleas in the mailbox and over the telephone, it seems each of the nation's 300,000 charities solicits harder at this time of year.
At the same time, many donations are made as people bask in the warmth of family and the holiday season and think of those less fortunate.But it is important to make sure the donation goes to someone needy.
The National Council of Better Business Bureaus has established guidelines for charities and publishes lists of those which meet its standards for accountability, use of funds, truthful fund-raising and having an independent governing body.
These lists are issued every other month and the most recent edition can be obtained by for $1. The title is "Give But Give Wisely: A Guide to Charitable Giving." Write to the Philanthropic Advisory Service, Council of Better Business Bureaus, 1515 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Va., 22209.
In addition, local charities can be checked with local Better Business Bureau offices, which will report whether they have received any complaints about them.
In general, the BBB recommends against giving cash; pay with a check made out to the charity, not to an individual making the request.
And don't be fooled by names that look impressive or sound like those of well-known organizations. If you are not sure, check with the BBB or state attorney general's office.
Mail appeals for money should clearly identify the charity and describe its programs.
Beware of appeals that bring tears to your eyes but tell you nothing about the charity or exactly what it is doing about the problems described.
Appeals should not be disguised as bills or invoices. Those are illegal in most cases and, at best, misleading.
It is against the law to demand payment for unordered merchandise. If sent something such as a key ring, stamps, greeting cards, pens or whatever, you are under no obligation to pay for them. The organization is trying to use guilt to get money.
In the case of door-to-door or street solicitations, demand identification from the solicitor, including the full name and address of the charity.
Ask if the charity is licensed by the state and local authorities - this is required by most states and many localities.
Don't succumb to pressure to give to the charity on the spot or to allow a runner to pick up the money. Any charity that needs your money today will welcome it just as much tomorrow, after you've had a chance to think things over.
The BBB warns that statements like "all proceeds go to charity" may not mean what they seem. In many cases, this means proceeds left after the cost of fund raising, which can make a big difference.
If asked to buy things such as candy, show tickets, magazines, cards or whatever, ask what will be the charity's share.