Local charities combat ‘compassion fatigue’ amid year-end giving

December 20, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

What to know

If you make a donation to a charity this year, you may be able to take a deduction on your tax return. In order to help taxpayers interested in making charitable donations — and tax deductions — the Internal Revenue Service offers the following tips:

Make sure the organization qualifies — Charitable contributions must be made to qualified organizations to be deductible. Find a list of qualified organizations in IRS Publication 78, Cumulative List of Organizations, at www.irs.gov.

What you can deduct — You can deduct your cash contributions and the fair market value of most property you donate to a qualified organization, but special rules apply to several types of donated property, including clothing or household items, cars and boats.

When you receive something in return — If your contribution entitles you to receive merchandise, goods or services in return — such as admission to a charity banquet or sporting event — you can deduct only the amount exceeding the fair market value of the benefit received.

How to keep records — Keep records of any contribution you make, regardless of the amount. For any cash contribution, you must maintain a record of the contribution, such as a cancelled check, bank or credit card statement, payroll deduction record or a written statement from the charity containing the date and amount of the contribution and the name of the organization.

Handling pledges and payments — Only contributions actually made during the tax year qualify as deductible. For example, if you pledged $500 in September but paid the charity only $200 by Dec. 31, you can only deduct $200.

Many legitimate charities use telemarketing, direct mail, email and online ads to ask for contributions. Unfortunately, scam artists also use the same techniques to defraud donors. If someone asks for a donation, take time to learn about the charity:

Ask for the charity’s name, address, phone number and written information about its programs.

Ask whether the person contacting you is a professional fundraiser and how much of your contribution is meant for fundraising costs.

Check the history of the organization with the Washington Secretary of State’s Office at www.sos.wa.gov.

Potential donors should also know the warning signs of a scam:

Reject high-pressure pitches, and remember: It’s OK to hang up.

Be skeptical of a thank-you message for a pledge you do not remember making.; scam artists will lie to get your money.

Avoid giving cash donations.

Avoid charities offering to send a courier or overnight delivery service to collect money.

Avoid charities guaranteeing sweepstakes winnings in exchange for a contribution.

Avoid charities forming overnight, especially in the aftermath of natural disasters, or claim to be for police officers, veterans or firefighters.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

The year is almost over, and unending calls, email and mailers requesting donations pour in at the same pace as Christmas cards.

The need is up for local human services organizations and other nonprofit groups, but as the economy remains anemic, leaders at such organizations raised concerns about “compassion fatigue” — a drop-off in chartable donations due to overexposure to calls for aid.

Issaquah and, indeed, the entire Puget Sound region maintain a long-held reputation for generosity to charitable causes. However, compassion fatigue is acute, especially as local organizations assist more people amid the economic downturn and groups face the ever-present prospect of additional cuts as local and state governments trim spending.

“Where does the fatigue come from? I think it comes from the number of people asking in a noncoordinated fashion that are all trying different strategies,” said Jared Erlandson, public relations manager for United Way of King County.

Timing is another factor. The entreaties from nonprofit organizations come amid the holiday season, as people juggle commitments.

“Our experience is that people give at the end of the year,” Together Center Executive Director Pam Mauk said. “That’s when they think about it. That’s when they want to give.”

(The nonprofit Together Center, a human services campus in Redmond, serves clients from Issaquah and elsewhere on the Eastside.)

But the deluge from numerous nonprofit organizations can sometimes turn off potential donors.

“People are indeed swamped by the requests and probably aren’t appreciative of all the requests that they’re getting,” Mauk said.

Organizations also need to offer a compelling message to donate in order to cut through the clutter to reach potential donors.

“You can’t be saying the same thing every time,” Erlandson said. “If you’re always saying, ‘The sky is falling. Things are worse now than they’ve ever been. The need is greater.’ Those are the kind of catchphrases that, I think cause compassion fatigue.”

Still, the limping economy has created a greater need and especially a temporary need for people slow to rebound after job losses or other setbacks.

“We all know somebody who needs a hand right now and may not a month from now,” Erlandson said.

Though donations spike in the aftermath of major tragedies, such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, giving is sometimes tougher for organizations addressing ongoing issues, such as homelessness and poverty.

“We know that people in a huge, epic disaster don’t even think twice. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, Katrina, where’s my checkbook?’” Erlandson said. “Those kinds of donations are over and above their normal giving.”

Claire Petersky, executive director of Sammamish-based Eastside Friends of Seniors, said showing potential donors how funding is used is important.

“Whether you are donating or whether you are volunteering, I think if you see a visible change in somebody else’s life, then you have a feeling that this isn’t like a never-ending pit of need,” she said.

The solution for Eastside Friends of Seniors is to send regular updates to donors about how donations assist the organization’s mission to aid local senior citizens. Petersky said a board member even joined the organization after reading about Eastside Friends of Seniors’ accomplishments in a message sent to donors and volunteers.

“I know I made a difference in that person’s life. I think that that gives a sense of accomplishment and helps overcome that sensation of being overwhelmed,” Petersky said.

(The organization changed names from Faith in Action to Eastside Friends of Seniors in late September.)

Contact between organizations and donors throughout the year is essential, too, leaders at local nonprofit groups said.

“If people see, here’s my 50 bucks, here’s my 100 bucks and they never hear back from you, they never see any result, they don’t know what that donation accomplished, it’s going to really compile for next year or later on this year when you go back to ask these people,” Erlandson said. “So, for us, a key is showing results.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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