How to Fact-Check Your Holiday Donations
Make sure that worthy cause is actually worthy before adding it to your list for end-of-year giving.
Whether feeling particularly giving on Giving Tuesday, or attempting to eke out a few more tax-exempt charitable contributions at the last minute, Americans tend to open their wallets for worthy causes through the month of December. And while it’s never a bad idea to lean into your more generous spirit, it is also important to be sure your money’s going where you think it is.
In early November, President Donald Trump was fined $2 million by a New York State Judge for misusing his own charitable foundation to further his personal and political gain. After agreements reached by Trump’s lawyers and the office of the attorney general, the remaining $1.7 million from Trump’s foundation will be given to other nonprofits. Similarly, in 2017, the Eric Trump Foundation was alleged to have funneled money donors believed was going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to the Trump Organization in order to pay for use of Trump golf courses. Of course, misleading charity scams aren’t singular to the First Family: Charitable scams can range from fraudulent organizations on a grand scale, to viral crowdfunding campaigns, to general misinformation around giving. After a meme about the Girl Scouts supporting Planned Parenthood went viral, causing one swath of people to be extra-eager to give to the Girl Scouts and others to be off-put, FactCheck.org thoroughly unraveled the idea that buying Girl Scout cookies ever supported Planned Parenthood in any capacity. While it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which anyone regrets picking up an extra box of Thin Mints, no one wants to feel misled and taken advantage of after writing a check.
Social media makes it easy to fall victim to such giving myths. Between crowdfunding links, personal Facebook fundraisers, and nonstop political campaign emails asking for cash, how can you figure out who or what deserves your gift this holiday season? This is especially relevant to women, because, according to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, across income levels and generations, women are more likely to give (and to give more) than men. According to their research, women also give more consistently on Giving Tuesday than men, and for women, giving is based in empathy for others and women tend to donate more to women and girl’s causes.
“In interviews with women philanthropists, many high-net worth donors cited their own gender-based experiences with discrimination, inequity, reproductive health, and education as motivations for giving to these causes,” explained Andrea Pactor, interim director of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute. “We often say that women give from their heart, their head, and their hands.”
In other words, giving is personal — and no one wants to get taken. Here are a couple ways to track where your donated money actually goes, so you can be sure it’s furthering causes that align with your values and hopes for the year ahead.
Create a giving plan.
“I encourage first-time or emerging donors to start by creating a ‘giving plan,’” suggests Pactor, who says you want to be intentional and strategic before handing over your hard-earned cash. “Start by asking yourself these questions: What motivates me to give? What are my values? How does my identity influence where I want to give and volunteer?” she explains.
From there, Pactor says, you can determine causes and issues that most align with your values and experiences. It also prevents a giving slide, where you feel obligated to donate to every fundraiser you see without feeling confident in where your money is going. Pactor suggests identifying one or two key issues that matter most to you in order to generate more impact and have your dollar go further. “Where do you want to see change in the world?” she asks.
Do your homework.
Think of giving like social media sharing: When you give, just like when you share, you amplify something, be it an individual, an organization, or a cause. Your support gives a voice to the story they’re telling, so approach donating the same way you would sharing. Double-check where the information is coming from (including seeing if multiple outlets or sources have verified the information, or mentioned the cause and organization), and make sure what you’re sharing is coming from a place or person you trust. It doesn’t feel great when you donate to a cause you care about, only to find out the organization has founders or funders whose views directly oppose that which you thought you were supporting.
Luckily, with giving, there ways to clear up these things. Here are a few:
- Is the organization rated? Pactor cites tools like Charity Navigator and Giving Compass that provide nonprofit ratings, and help you narrow down organizations that align with issues you want to support.
- Has it been flagged as a scam? FactCheck.org often debunks charity scams, and the Federal Trade Commission suggests BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Watch, and Guidestar for checking the veracity of any cause you’re donating to.
- Is it actually a 501(c)(3)? Another suggested fact-check is seeing whether the charity in question is registered with the IRS, as it could be a red flag if it isn’t actually a tax-exempt organization. There's a search function right on the IRS website.
- Raise your concerns: If you’re giving to an online fundraiser, don’t be afraid to ask questions about how the money donated will be used. Anyone with a legitimate plan (and, again, non-profit status) should be able to speak to it.
- Get receipts: One of the questions to verify before giving is if, and in what format, receipts of donation will be given. Did you know you can (and should!) get a receipt for dropping off your used clothing at Goodwill? The receipt is proof in hand that the organization is following tax law, and it's also your ticket to writing off that donation on your taxes. In other words: If an individual is giving out their personal Venmo on Twitter to collect for a good cause, of course you can chip in if you want, but you also have to be okay with that money just going straight into their pocket.
Remember, there are lots of ways to give.
It can feel overwhelming to want to hit donate to every cause, awesome political candidate, or fundraiser that hits your timeline, but remember that part of fact-checking is realizing where your gift can have the biggest impact. Maybe you choose to knock on doors or work the polls during a local election, or phone bank for candidates you support. Volunteering at animal shelters, as a mentor for local organizations centered on young women or students in crisis, or otherwise getting involved are fantastic ways to see the gift of your time have real impact, where you don’t have to worry about an Instagram grifter making off with your Giving Tuesday funds. Giving to local organizations you have a relationship with, or a community awareness of, also removes the stress of worrying about their reputation or political or social ties somewhere up the chain. “Giving doesn’t have to just mean donating money; you can also donate your time, talent and testimony to the causes you care about,” Pactor says. And when you're armed with all of your research, you'll be able to give in good faith.