From The Heart Or Wallet: Get The Most Of Your Last-Minute Charitable Donations

Whether it’s the lingering holiday spirit or just the desire to lower your annual tax burden before the deadline, you might be feeling a bit of a tug to donate your time, money, food, clothing, or other items to charity.  But before you make your last-minute gift, make sure you’re doing it right.

As we’ve previously noted, there are a number of ways to not suck at charitable giving.

GOING THE FOOD BANK ROUTE
If you’re doing a little winter pantry cleaning to make room for all those holiday-themed products you scooped up at the grocery store, you might be tempted to make a donation to your local food bank. But before you head over with your cans of tartar sauce and sardines in oil, keep a few things in mind.

Why has this product been in your cupboard so long? If the answer to that question is that you would never dream of consuming it, then other people probably don’t want it either.

So instead, xoJane’s Deb Martinson suggests, would-be donors should think of it like this: What would you want to eat, using only nonperishable foods?

Not everyone has the same things available to them that you might. For instance, some people might not have can openers or microwaves. That means some of the better items to donate might be things that would help produce on-the-go meals like peanut butter, tuna (with pop-tops) or crackers.

Just Ask.  If all else fails and you just feel completely unknowledgeable about what others would like to eat, simply call the local food bank. Many donation centers have a specific list of foods that are in constant need, some might not even be food but other necessities like toilet paper, soap, and diapers.

(For more suggestions on how to donate to a food bank, check out our story from last year that offers many helpful guidelines.)

DONATING TO A CAUSE OR ORGANIZATION
When it comes to larger donations, consumers might pick a cause or organization that is near-and-dear to their hearts. While this is always a great option, there are certain things we should all remember before signing the check.

Is it a legitimate organization? If you’re giving to charity because you’re a good person, and because you want to lower your tax burden, then you must consider how you donate. To include a donation on your 2015 return, you must give to a legitimate, qualified organization — like, for example, Consumerist — before December 31.

Consumerist’s “How Not To Suck,” column previously suggested that consumers readying to give a donation double-check that their charity of choice is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions exempt with the Internal Revenue Service.

You can’t deduct contributions to individuals. While we would never suggest you don’t help out an individual in need, consumers should keep in mind that those types of donations can’t be deducted. This also includes donations to political organizations and candidates.

GIVING YOUR TIME
While it is admirable for consumers to provide financial donations to charities, there may be no donation more valuable than your time.

How far will you time donation go versus your monetary donation? WalletHub has a calculator to help consumer determine what a charity can accomplish with their cash donation. By using the calculator, would-be donors could compare their time contribution to their financial one.

What skills can you offer the charity that they might be lacking? Consumers might be able to offer a volunteering donation that can’t be matched by a financial donation. For example, if you’re web-savvy, you might be able to help the organization revamp their online presence – a gift that could continue giving for years to come.

Donations of time can also provide tax deductions – kind of. Consumerist previously reported that consumers can deduct $0.14 a mile if they drove to the organization. You can also add the cost for tolls and parking. Make sure to keep good records. While the travel costs can be deducted, you can’t actually deduct an hourly rate for your volunteering since you’re not actually being paid.

BE AWARE OF TIME AND PROCESSES
There’s A Deadline: With the end of the year just days away, our colleagues at Consumer Reports remind would-be donors to make sure they’re aware of important tax-related deadlines tied to charitable giving when it comes to sending checks in the mail or transferring investment securities to their favorite charities.

Is The Tax Deduction For You? While it might be nice to get a little break on your taxes for all that charitable giving, it’s important to remember that such deductions must be itemized. So if you don’t already itemize your taxes, it might not be worth seeking the tax benefit. After all, it’s really all about giving right?

DON’T GET TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF
No matter how you decide to give this holiday season, make sure your donation is put to good use by checking that the organization is genuine.

Parts of your donation might not go to the rightful pockets. A report from New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last year found that only about 38% of all donations collected by telemarketers actually went to the charitable organizations.

If you’re contacted by a person over the phone soliciting charitable donations for a non-profit organization, it might be best to resist giving on the spot.

Instead, do your homework by researching the charity before you give. The National Association of State Charity Officials provides information on who to contact in your state to research information about charities and fundraising companies.

Additionally, keep in mind that some charities have been found to use donations for other costs, such as paying administrators instead of those in need.

The past year was rife with ne’er-do-wells that promised to give collected donations to those in need, but lined their own pockets instead.

In May, four cancer charities were accused by federal regulators of swindling donors out of $187 million.

The Cancer Fund of America, Inc. (CFA), Cancer Support Services Inc. (CSS), Children’s Cancer Fund of America Inc. (CCFOA) and The Breast Cancer Society Inc. (BCS) allegedly deceptively raised $187 million in donations by portraying themselves as legitimate charities and told prospective donors that funds would be used for help cancer patients by providing direct support and needed medical assistance.

In reality, the regulators and state officials, claim the charities spent just 3% of the donations on actual cancer patients.

Just two months ago, NY AG Schneiderman reached a settlement with a for-profit company accused of collecting donated items, like clothing, and then selling them for a profit. Under the settlement, Thrift Land USA agreed to pay a $700,000 in penalties.

To better ensure your donations are ending up in the right hands used these tools offered by CharityNavigator.org, GuideStar.org and the Better Business Bureau to do some sleuthing.