Holiday giving: Where is your money going?

10:30 PM, Nov 11, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Almost every single night of the year, the 120 plus bed at the Union Gospel Mission are full; all told more than 1,400 hundred men found shelter here in 2012. Volunteers served more than 355,000 meals. They also provided the basic necessities for more than 200 homeless women and children.

Just about every penny of the mission's $15 million in annual operating costs comes from donations, and 80 percent of it comes from individual donations.

"The mission, through donations, is the expression of 'let's come together to figure out a way to come together and help people get back on their feet," Brian Molohon, the mission's Director of Donor Engagement, explained.

There are dozens and dozens of great charitable organizations who could use your holiday donations. And while many people have fewer and fewer charitable dollars to spend, the question becomes "how much of my money is truly going towards the cause I intend to help?"

Kris Kewitsch, the Executive Director of the decades-old Charities Review Council says you have to do more than just write a check or give someone your credit card number.

"Get information from their annual report and if you have questions, you should feel comfortable asking. You're giving your resources to an organization and you become a partner with that organization," Kewitsch explained.

The Review Council provides information for more than 16,000 donors and has looked into the finances of hundreds of charities; more than 500 of them have passed a rigorous test to earn their "Meet Standards" seal.

Kewitsch and her staff put together a list of questions to ask for our report that you should consider before donating.

1. Does this organization want to solve the same problem that you do?
2. Will my donation be tax deductible?
3. How will the organization use my donation? Do your research
4. Does this organization strive to reflect its community?
5. Is the organization innovative? Does it offer out of the box solutions? Does it stretch your charitable dollars?

"It really is about what is it you're passionate about? Ask questions and then when you feel comfortable, make a donation," Kewitsch concluded.

Annette Bauer with the Salvation Army of MN and ND wants you to call her, or any other charity you're giving to.

"Tell them you want results! You want to see what they're doing with your money. Don't base it on how much money they're spending on "admin," that's one piece, look at all of it," she warned.

The Charities Review Council says if more than 30 percent of a charity's expenses go towards administrative costs, you might want to ask a few more questions. Don't rule it out; just ask a couple more questions.

Bauer says some of those admin costs are there to protect you, and the people the charity intends to help. The Salvation Army uses some of the money to train volunteers and conduct background checks on volunteers. A good chunk of money goes towards information technology which makes sure your online donation is safe and secure.

Over the holidays in 2012, the Salvation Army raised more than $10.8 million. About $3.5 million came from its kettle campaign, the rest poured in from individual and corporate donors. They used that money to provide hundreds of thousands of meals and housing stays. Volunteers also helped to distribute more than 60,000 toys.

The Salvation Army spends about 18 percent of its money on "admin." They go through great lengths to put a pie chart on their website so donors know exactly where their hard earned cash will go.

"Transparency is a big deal, because if you have a hard time getting information from a non-profit, I think you should be suspect," Bauer said.

Back at the Union Gospel Mission, Brian Molohon asks donors to go a step further. He suggests you take a field trip after you do your homework.

"Then I think you should come down and take a look at the place. If you're going to write out a check, take the time, hand-deliver that check. Come down and ask for a tour," he suggests.

You will likely find the heart of that charity. You should see that your money is, indeed, going to help the cause that is close to your heart.

A chance to increase the impact of giving is fast approaching in Minnesota.

Give to the Max Day is November 14, an annual day of giving in which hundreds of nonprofits and schools will offer the opportunity to double your dollars with matching grants.  Click here to learn more.

(Copyright 2013 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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