Think About It: Light, dark sides of giving

I thought I’d better write this column early in the season, lest I be accused of grinching too close to Christmas and all the other holidays we celebrate this time of year. I am already uncomfortably close to Hanukkah and Bodhi Day by the time this is published.

Sorry to bring you into this tortured world I have around giving, but I suspect some of you are already there with me. It is the world of repeated solicitations that come on a regular basis throughout the year and rises exponentially during the holidays.

Having just left the super-charged world of relentless and dare I say mindless political solicitations, husband and I are simply not ready for another onslaught no matter how innocent of political motivations. The struggle of charities to be noticed above all results in an annoying sameness.

I suspect there is an industry of consultants to help organizations raise funds, all with the same advice. The variety of mailings is endless and weighs heavily on issue donations. For example, we get solicitations separately on the plight of tigers, polar bears, birds and butterflies. I don’t remember one on snakes featuring cute baby snakes, though.

Which reminds me that political campaigns do the same thing. Couple years ago, I responded to an email that spoke to an issue that really concerned me and the spokesperson had a plan for tackling it. I liked it and gave money along with a note saying I wanted to know the progress made on the plan.

Needless, I suppose, or sadly to say, I never heard. It was a ploy right up there with being asked to participate in a survey, which, if done, results in an ask for money.

Each charity or political party wants to discover what sticks and makes most of us give. That’s all. There seems to be little accountability for promises made in solicitations, just more asks.

Just recently, we realized that what we thought was paying to renew our membership was taken as an issue gift. Our first four clues were weekly reminders that our membership was due. We’ve started returning reminders with notes to apply our gift to membership dues.

After a few of these, I begin including notes questioning the integrity of their accounting practices, either that or they are only reading credit card numbers or checks practices. I am becoming jaded enough to suspect that much of what we donate goes into mailing solicitations.

I also wondered if our names and interest was sold to like organizations, much like Facebook leverages its customer information. Soon after donations, we begin receiving more solicitations from what could be construed as like organizations.

Don’t you wonder if that many organizations doing the same thing are working inefficiently and at cross purposes?

The surprising side of charitable giving

One important distinction I will make between donations to candidates and charities is that candidates must report who gives and how much. We’ve seen the reports in our almost daily newspaper which also lists general expenditures in some cases.

Charities have no such mandates. They are under no obligation to report to donors how much money they get, who they get it from and what they spend it on. I was astonished to learn the loose reporting requirements of charitable organizations four years ago when I participated in an in-depth look at Olympic Medical Center Foundation (OMCF).

Lack of transparency triggered the press to look at the practices of OMCF. One of the key fundraising planners resigned when she determined that expenses for some of the events and overhead were unreasonably high. She and other donors were astonished to learn that OMCF was unwilling to share financial information or what would seem like benign information such as the identity of its board members.

I will save the details of what ensued and my journey to and through that particular disillusionment for another column, except to say that ultimately the information was revealed through a PDN report by Paul Gottlieb (Aug. 17, 2014).

The entire episode revealed to me how little we know about the charities to whom we give our money and how little the charities must tell us. A charity will tell you that each is required to submit an annual tax report, the 990 which is available online.

They are right. The most recent 990 published by the IRS for OMCF is 2015. Anyone can look it up, at 990finder.foundationcenter.org.

The point is that it’s not current and, in the meantime, a charity can say anything it likes and you can’t verify it for up to three years. That is, unless the charity chooses to share it with its public.

Some do. Peninsula College Foundation puts its 990s on its website. Now, that’s transparent. Meanwhile, once the OMCF article became history, OMCF went dark in terms of any public financial reporting.

Husband and I concluded if a charity makes it that impossible to see as much as a pie chart, we should give elsewhere.

Giving smartly in good cheer

The season calls upon us to uplift others who, at least for the moment, are not as fortunate. We have decided to lower the frenzy of giving and be more deliberate. For us, that is focusing on certain charities and not spreading our giving resources so thin.

We are determined to make our choices outside the solicitations intended to trigger emotions such as worry, fear and guilt. We have organized our giving into two time periods during the year just to keep sane and have some reasonable record.

The OMCF experience explains in part my skeptical view of charitable giving and our caution in making donations. We have a minimum expectation that a charity is transparent in accounting for its revenue and expenditures.

We, along with most people, want to give of time and money to worthy causes that use their resources well to fill their commitments. And aren’t shy about reporting their activities. We want to know and respect the charity and believe the charity respects us no matter the level of our donation.

In the end, we are solely responsible for due diligence in making our giving choices. Giving is serious and important to our humility and humanity. Our giving is our unique version of humanity to others that seeks its reward outside ourselves.

I will let you know when I achieve skepticism-free giving.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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