AG Kamala Harris says give, but give wisely

Commercial fundraisers in California raised $338.5 million in 2011, but only just over half of that actually went to charitable organizations, according to a report released today by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

So in this season of giving, ask a lot of questions about how and who to give to.

“This report gives Californians the vital information they need to make educated choices about where to make charitable contributions this holiday season,” Harris said in a news release. “While commercial fundraisers play a role in supporting charities in California, it is important for donors to know how much of their money will be used to support the charity’s programs, and how much will go to overhead.”

The 51 percent of donated funds going to charities using a professional fundraiser in 2011 is actually an increase from the 2010 average of 44.4 percent.

Commercial fundraisers, hired by charities to raise money on their behalf, typically charge a flat fee for their services or take a percentage of the contributions they collect.

Most charities registered with the Attorney General don’t use commercial fundraisers to raise funds, but do their own, in-house fundraising. But state law requires commercial fundraisers to register with the Attorney General’s office and file annual financial disclosure reports detailing income and expenses for each fundraising campaign.

The $338.5 million figure excludes thrift store operations and vehicle donation programs, which are accounted for separately.

The Attorney General’s office also publishes a Guide to Charitable Giving for Donors with advice and guidelines, including:

    Ask the fundraiser how a donation will be distributed. Fundraisers are required by law to tell a consumer this information.
    Ask what percentage of donations will be used to pay for fundraising expenses. This information can better inform the consumer as to how much of the contribution will go to the cause versus overhead.
    Ask if the fundraiser works for a commercial fundraiser and is being paid to solicit. If the answer is yes, then it is likely less of the funds are going to the charity.
    Avoid cash donations, as cash can more easily be diverted to non-charitable purposes and there is no way to trace it.
    Avoid giving credit card information to a telephone solicitor or in response to a telephone solicitation.
    Learn about a charitable organization, its activities and its fundraising practices before giving.

The Attorney General’s office maintains a searchable online database on registered charities and registered professional fundraisers, but donors also can check with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.