Is your charitable donation going to the right place?
It's the giving season and many charities rely heavily on the donations that come in during November and December. But how do you know that your money is actually going to the cause that you want to support?
Staff and volunteers with the Humane Society of Chittenden County spent a recent evening stuffing envelopes for a massive mailing to potential donors. The nonprofit makes sure they get the most bang for their buck by doing almost all of their outreach in-house.
"We save so much money by doing more of the work here. It's really just paper and printing -- and our time too, but it's kind of fun," said the group's Diana Hill.
Fundraising is their bread and butter. Three quarters of their annual revenue comes from charitable support. People who see animals and want to help them find forever homes. Most people give during the holiday season, so right now they're getting their name in front of eyes -- and wallets -- to compete for donation dollars.
"This mailing here is to supporters highlighting all the amazing things we've been able to with their donation and hopefully encourage them to give again," Hill said.
"We want every dollar to count. We want every Vermonter in need to be served," said Chris Curtis, chief of the Public Protection Division of the Vermont Attorney General's office, which is in charge of making sure you know where your money is really going.
"Some of them, they didn't raise anything and so there was nothing paid," Curtis said, point out a database which tracks paid fundraisers -- companies hired to bring in donations. It shows you how much of your money is guaranteed to go to the charity and how much actually did. "Vermonters can look at that themselves and make a determination about whether or if they want to give, or give to the organization directly and bypass a paid fundraising campaign."
Paid fundraising is legal and legitimate, but one trend Curtis says he notices when he looks at their data is there are fewer of them. There's been a 60 percent drop just in the past four years. Of the 14 paid fundraising companies registered here now, almost all of their 108 campaigns are for national organizations.
"People have learned that they can do this better for themselves using a great development director as part of their team, and not have to hire out of house," Curtis said.
But we did see a few local charities on the list, including the Vermont Police Canine Association, the University of Vermont Medical Center, Vermont PBS and Special Olympics Vermont.
"There are a lot of competing demands for dollars, even within Special Olympics Vermont," said the group's Missy Siner. She says their mission centers on inclusivity, from athlete employment to unified sports teams to other efforts that enrich the lives of people with and without intellectual disabilities. But those programs come at a cost. They have to raise almost every dollar in their $1.3 million budget.
The Penguin Plunge brings in a frigid 40 percent of that. But about 20 to 25 percent comes in during the giving season. Right now they are reaching out to donors through mailings, phone calls or more. Some happens from their South Burlington office and others through a national campaign.
"I think both are effective, and one of the things we know about asking and giving is that it takes multiple tries in multiple different ways," Siner said.
But hiring professionals comes at a cost, and we saw the amount a paid fundraising company kept varied widely. DialAmerica Marketing Inc. promised and gave just 10 percent of the $18,000 they raised in a year. Heritage Company Inc. collected about $75,000 over three years -- 50 to 70 percent of that went to the charity.
To keep all your money helping local athletes, Siner Shea says reach out to them at their office directly or contribute to one of their events like the Plunge. They get to keep all of what they raise there. "We are grateful for every dollar because each one makes a difference," she said.
The Humane Society also uses their social media following to engage potential donors.
The AG Office says using social media and stuffing envelopes are two ways nonprofits are cutting fundraising costs.
"We have seen increasingly that the Vermont nonprofit community is resourceful. They're frugal. And they've learned that through the use of social media and the internet, and ongoing membership support -- for example monthly donations instead of a yearly donation -- they can make those dollars go further themselves," said Curtis.
Special Olympics Vermont says many of its donors start as volunteers.
And while the charity does some paid fundraising, they've found events like the Penguin Plunge to be more profitable opportunities because the people who participate get more involved and make the case to others that it's worth donating.
How do you know if you're dealing with a nonprofit directly or with a paid fundraiser? Curtis says if you're on the phone -- ask. And ask how much of your donation is going to the charity itself. It's a red flag if they can't or won't tell you. And call the nonprofit directly and ask if they're fundraising.That'll also make sure you aren't getting scammed by a fake fundraiser.
We'll tell you how to avoid those Tuesday night in part two of this report.