Consumer Alert

Check charities’ legitimacy before donating

With each fresh disaster that hits the headlines — shootings in Orlando, flooding in West Virginia — comes the natural desire to do something to help. And with the rise of social media and mobile payment technology, it has never been easier to find and donate to fund-raising campaigns. But when your Facebook feed is overrun with links to charitable organizations and personal pleas for aid, how can a concerned consumer be sure her money is going to a cause that will use it well? How can a would-be donor know whether the request is legitimate and not a scam?

“The immediate reaction is just to give to help,” said Gabe Cohen, director of communications of charity information website GuideStar. “We like to recommend that in all situations you take a step back and you do some research.”

A basic Google search is a great place to start. If these results suggest the fund-raiser is legitimate, visit a site like GuideStar or Charity Navigator for more in-depth information. These sites will let you confirm the group doing the fund-raising is, indeed, registered as a nonprofit organization. You can also view their tax filings and look for the number that shows how much money goes to overhead expenses — generally, only about a quarter of an organization’s budget should fall into this category, Charity Navigator spokeswoman Sandra Miniutti said.


Look for a group with a good track record of action. The aftermath of a disaster is not the time to donate to a newly established charity, Miniutti said. Cohen recommends looking for organizations that can quantify their specific effects: the number of families given shelter after a storm or the number of survivors offered counseling after a shooting, for example.

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“Find organizations that clearly state the solution to the problem and how they are uniquely positioned to solve the problem,” he said.

What about crowdfunding websites like GoFundMe, an online platform that lets anyone set up a personal fund-raising website?

The company has proprietary technology and a dedicated staff to seek out and remove fraudulent requests, spokesman Bobby Whithorne said. The result is that fewer than 0.1 percent of the campaigns posted on the site prove to be fraudulent, he said. In the case of Orlando, GoFundMe has declared it will not release funds until the recipients have been identified and verified.

Still, exercise caution. Because anyone can create a campaign, there is always potential for abuse.

Have a consumer question or complaint? Reach Sarah Shemkus at