Should your holiday gift be a charitable donation?

Consumer Reports News: December 03, 2009 04:17 PM

Giving to charity in lieu of, or in addition to, a traditional holiday gift has a lot going for it.

It restores the idea that the holidays are about caring for and helping others. And it’s a simple and elegant alternative to finding a gift for that person who has everything.

But there are some factors you might consider before choosing that option.

• Make sure a donation is what the person wants. Not everyone will be happy with a charitable donation made on their behalf, especially if they’re expecting a traditional gift. Consider asking in advance, even if it spoils the surprise.

• Choose the right organization. If your gift recipient is interested in animal rights, it may not be enough simply to give to just any animal rights organization. He or she may have a favorite group. Again, ask in advance.

• Research groups. Some charities carry out their missions better than others. Indeed, some groups do pitifully little good with the money they receive, and others are outright frauds.

Charity watchdogs can help you separate the good from the bad, at no cost to you. They include Charity Navigatorthe American Institute of Philanthropy and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. (The BBB recently announced it would relax one aspect of its standards on charities' financials to take into account the recession’s impact on many charities’ bottom lines.)

Two organizations that focus on Christian groups are Wall Watchers’ MinistryWatch program and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. MinistryWatch ranks Christian charities; the ECFA provides accreditation to groups that meet its standards.

If you’re financially savvy, you can do some super sleuthing yourself by visiting GuideStar. The site provides free access to charity tax returns, which contain lots of information about how charities spend their money, including how much is used for their programs, as opposed to fund-raising and general expenses. You can find out how much a group’s highest paid officials make.

• Avoid charity gift cards. With a charity gift card, you’re not giving directly to a specific group. Instead, you’re paying for a gift card that you then give your friends or loved ones. They in turn select from a list of charities that they’d like to receive the money.

It sounds like a great idea, but there are drawbacks. First, a percentage of the money typically goes to the group that’s providing the card, often a non-profit itself. We’ve seen handling fees of as much as $5, which would go to a charity if you donated directly. There also can be mailing fees and additional charges when the recipient designates the group or groups to receive the money. Most of the cards cannot be redeemed for cash. (The non-tax-deductible Kiva gift certificate is an exception.) And despite what you might expect, it’s the card purchaser who gets the benefit of any tax deduction, even though the card recipient selects the charities.

With some cards, recipients have more than a million groups from which to choose. With others, the selection may be just hundreds. There may be few or no local or regional groups.

Finally, the card may have a expiration date, after which the money goes to the issuer if the card isn’t used. Keep in mind that millions of dollars in traditional gift cards go unused each year.

• Let your gift recipients make their own donations. One option is giving cash to them and suggesting that they use some or all of it for a charitable donation. That lets them decide where the money should go. It also lets them off the hook they’d prefer to use the money for themselves but are too timid to tell you outright. Also, any tax benefit likely will go to the gift recipient, not you. (Note that the IRS tells us that if there ‘s an agreement between the gift giver and receiver that the gift money must be used for a charitable donation, any tax deduction may remain with the initial gift giver, since the recipient simply is acting as a conduit for relaying the cash.)—Anthony Giorgianni

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