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Use heart, head when donating

December 10, 2011 12:10 am




The number of people dropping off donations or writing checks to Rappahannock Goodwill Industries soars during the holidays.

December is the busiest month for the organization's 27 stores, donation centers and donation containers. The biggest uptick comes during the week between Christmas and New Year's.

"There are people realizing that if they are going to get a tax deduction, they'd best make their gift before the end of the year so they can get their receipt," said Woody Van Valkenburgh, its president and CEO. "The same is true of cash donors. It's also the time of year when people think about being thankful and their neighbors."

According to the Nonprofit Research Collaborative's November 2010 Fundraising Survey, the latest one available, many charities such as Goodwill receive a significant share of their funding in the last quarter.

That flurry of donations helps many organizations aid those who are less fortunate. Rappahannock Goodwill, for example, assisted more than 3,000 area residents last year, including providing employment for more than 480 and helping another 200 find work.

But a number of organizations seeking contributions this time of year spend most of it on overhead--or are outright scams.

The 22 students participating in this year's Economics of Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector class at the University of Mary Washington learned firsthand how to find deserving recipients for the $10,000 that Doris Buffett's Learning By Giving Foundation provides annually.

Buffett, who has a home in downtown Fredericksburg, told the class her organization checks applicants' backgrounds to ensure that they are telling the truth, and gives money only when it will be used as "a hand up and not a handout," said Kate Gibson, a junior in the class who recently helped present checks to this year's recipients.

Buffett also told students to be wary of organizations in which family members hold all the top administrative positions, because they may be paying themselves huge salaries and using their nonprofit status as a tax dodge.

UMW's philanthropy class focused on her advice when designing its mission statement and researching the 51 applications it received. Their professor, Robert Rycroft, had emailed notices to the nearly 500 area charities in the database he created and has maintained since the class started in 2005. The organizations in it range from Rappahannock United Way and its member agencies to groups involved in art therapy for children.

"You name a social ill, and there's a foundation or organization to fight it," he said. "The length and breadth of charitable activities in this area is very impressive."

The students in the philanthropy class get to create their own mission statement, and this year's group wanted to improve the welfare of the disadvantaged of the greater Fredericksburg area by providing financial support to regional nonprofits that promote health and education.

They looked for programs that were stable and would use the donation to increase their capacity to serve. Each applicant had to submit a copy of its Form 990, which larger tax-exempt charities must file with the IRS; an audit of its books, and information about such things as who it serves and how the money would be used.

"We definitely paid close attention to salaries of executive directors," Gibson said. "If they were high, that was a red flag for us."

She said she and her classmates also checked such sites as, a free website that posts information about charities' missions, programs, leaders, goals and accomplishments. Recently, they awarded $2,400 for the Moss Free Clinic's diabetes management and diabetes home-testing programs, $3,600 for Stafford Junction's Helping Us Grow Strong program for 3- and 4-year-olds, and $4,000 for Rappahannock Legal Services to purchase new computers.

"I think the thing I learned is that you can have an impact even if you donate just $10 or $20 a year," Gibson said, "and it's a good habit to get into."

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

Here are the Better Business Bureau Foundation's tips for consumers who want to make wise charitable donations: VERIFY VALIDITY: Don't let emotional appeals and high-pressure tactics dictate donations. Visit to research local BBB Charity Reviews. Use online search engines and databases like and SPOTLIGHT SPENDING: According to BBB's 20 Standards of Charity Accountability, publicly soliciting charities should spend at least 65 percent of total expenses on program activities.

Be leery when solicitors declare that all proceeds go to the cause, but fail to substantiate claims. Seek out the Internal Revenue Service Form 990 from publicly soliciting charities; this form should be made available with appeals.

PROTECT PAYMENTS: Avoid giving cash, and make checks payable to charities, not individual solicitors. Always request receipts or confirmation codes for donations.

--Better Business Bureau Foundation

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