This time of year is rife with scammers, pretending to collect for various charities and causes. They can range from people trying to get money for organizations that don’t actually exist or who won’t actually receive what is collected, to folks using false tearjerker stories to raise money for their personal use. This time of year is also when many of us want to be generous, and not just for the tax incentives. It’s when we truly want to help those who need it, often more so than other times (even though they often certainly could use that assistance year-round). The holiday bonuses and gifts we ourselves receive might have us feeling more willing and able to direct a few dollars or more to fund raising campaigns. So how do we harmonize our desires to be generous with our fears of getting scammed?
You can always direct your donations directly through known charities, using their websites or other official channels. Websites such as Charity Navigator, as well as straight up Google, can help you vet the group first to make sure that they align with your values and goals, and to ensure that you’re using a donation method that will get your money to them. With smaller organizations, you can often directly contact someone associated with them, to answer your questions. You might even know them personally, or know them through a friend you trust. Being committed to this strategy is particularly effective as a response to in-person or phone requests for donations. You can take down the name of the group that someone is raising money for, and later take the time to look them up before sending over cash. It will give you time to think through whether and how much you want to give, and to ensure that the organization is legitimate. You’ll also cut out any middlemen who might not be passing on that money to the group they claim to represent. And sometimes, your research will lead you to a better place to receive your donations and still support the cause that attracted you.
That kind of digging can also help you figure out if an individual asking for money is actually having the problems they claim. But sometimes, we don’t want to intrude on their privacy or we don’t want to be in a position of judging whether or not they need what they request. That’s okay. The act of giving is the important part, and you aren’t at fault for falling for a money-making scheme. You might feel bad about it, and wish you’d done something differently – and that’s okay too. Ask for the information that makes you comfortable, give what you’d like to, and let it go. Or don’t ask, or don’t give. Either way, I’d encourage you to make and stick with your decision, then have faith that it was the right one at the time you made it, with what you knew at that time. It’s possible that your funds aren’t being used as you intended, whether you’re giving them to a person or a group, but that’s on them as you do the best that you can.
You’re not at any time obligated to contribute to someone’s passionate cause, emergency fund, better-Christmas-for-the-kids fund, or any other fund, especially if you can’t afford it yourself. If it’s someone you personally know who is asking and you’d like to find a middle ground, perhaps you can offer assistance in another way, like paying an overdue bill directly, taking them gift shopping, giving them your time or skills, buying or making them a meal, or helping them find or negotiate discounts. Time and effort are valuable gifts too, as are in-kind gifts that aren’t cash money. They may even be more appreciated at times, whether it’s someone you’ve helped stretch the few dollars that they have or an organization that suddenly no longer has to struggle along without the expert professional advice you can provide.
And don’t discount the direct moral support of being available for venting, of letting them know you’re thinking kind thoughts in their direction, or passing on news of their needs to others who are more able to help. We often make fun of “thoughts and prayers” because they’re not material assistance in hard dollars and real items, but it’s an even colder and more bare world when you are in need and are getting neither. That friend who makes a real effort to reach out to you and not just offer empty words, the one who offers heartfelt prayers in whatever flavor of religion they embrace, the one who makes sure that your plight gets to the right ears who can do more? They’re all valuable too.
By the way, if you’re looking for somewhere specific to give this holiday season, I’d like to suggest that you join me in finding a local food bank, a place that helps feed people in your community and that can help a family meet both their daily needs and their celebratory ones.