’Tis the season for giving

The office Scrouge recently tossed a toy into the Toys for Tots box at the front of the Sun office. The toy has no companions yet.

Last I looked, the toy collection box in our nearby CVS is empty, as is the Spark of Love box in front of the Central Avenue fire station. (A sign says to ring the doorbell when you drop off a toy. It’s possible toys have been donated and taken inside to prevent their theft by roaming Grinches.)

The Toys for Tots box at Baytown Realty is overflowing.

Good. My only concern here is that there are so many people of good will trying to do the same good thing in close proximity to one another that they’ll cancel out each other’s efforts. But I’ve been accused of being negative. (Like there’s something wrong with negativity.)

Charities have begun soliciting my donations in my email.

This is, after all, the season for it.

But being a worrywart and also being cost-conscious, I have set a strict limit on how much I will give to charity. I have bills to pay. And Christmas to buy if there’s anything left after the bills are paid.

So, what do you do when one hears from a charity that they don’t know anything about? Well, you can only deal with charities you know or do some research.

I research. And I never make a donation by email. Too many bad guys know how to impersonate do-gooders.

Here’s what I do, for whatever it’s worth.

Go to the California Secretary of State website and look up the business entity. Specifically, visit https://www.sos.ca.gov/business-programs/business-entities/cbs-search-tips. Your search should yield a PDF of the entity’s registration form and the most recent Statement of Information. If the charity doesn’t show up on the first search, check to make sure you have the right name and then make sure you selected the right “Search type,” the Corporation Name, or the LP/LLC Name or the Entity Number.

If the charity doesn’t show up in any of these searches, it is just possible that someone in the state government simply failed to update the database. Or a rookie do-gooder failed to file their paperwork. The absence of the registration isn’t necessarily proof of fraud. That said, it’s probably best to pass on sending money to that particular charity until someone from the organization explains why they aren’t on the Secretary of State website.

But let’s assume the best. Let’s assume the charity you’re researching is registered. Now you have the information you need to hunt down their IRS 990 form.

“The IRS requires all U.S. tax-exempt nonprofits to make public their three most recent Form 990 or 990-PF annual returns (commonly called “990s”) and all related supporting documents. They must also make public their Form 1023, which organizations file when they apply for tax-exempt status,” according to grantspace.org, a Candid website.

Legally, charities are supposed to make them available on demand. However, I do most of this sort of research on evenings and weekends when offices are closed. Fortunately, the internet is a good resource. Three places to search are the California Attorney General’s Registry Verification Search, the  IRS Tax Excempt Organization, and Guidestar, which recently merged with the Foundation Center to become “Candid.”

I personally like Guidestar best of all, but the California Attorney General has the best search engine of the lot. (Actually, there are so many choices at the AG site that it’s a little intimidating.) The IRS site is easy to use. I’ve never written a news story about a charity, but if I were investigating one, I’d probably hit all three sites. The more information the better.

Once your search turns up a recent 990 form, download the PDF and take a look at it. “Please note, it can take a year to 18 months from the end of an organization’s fiscal year to when its latest Form 990 is available online,” according to grantspace.org.

Now that you have the available 990 form, you have a motherlode of information: the number of volunteers, contributions for the current fiscal year and the previous year, program service revenue, investment income (if any), grants paid, etc. And that’s the first page.

What I want is Part VII, Compensation of Officers, Directors, Trustees, Key Employees, Highest Compensated Employees, and Independent Contractors. Specifically, I want to read the column “Reportable Compensation from the Organization.” If the compensation strikes me as high—say, more than 5% of revenues go to compensating the leadership—I go looking for another charity.

If that’s too much trouble for you, I’ll offer this advice from one of my atheist (or was he an agnostic?) relatives: find a Catholic order that takes a vow of poverty and give them your money.