The Cop Column
September, 2002
Cpl. Rick Hord
Public Information Officer
Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office

Is This a Legitimate Charity?

They come by mail, by telephone, and in person: requests for money. Every one seems worthy, yet we've all heard of charities that weren't what they claimed.

At the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, citizens often turn to us with the question, "Is this a legitimate charity?"

The State of Florida has laws to help answer that question. Any charity soliciting in Florida must file certain documents and register as a charity. That produces a very useful publication that you may obtain in printed form or access on-line. On the Internet, go to www.800helpfla.com and get to the "Gift Giver's Guide." Or, call 1-800-435-7352 (that's 1-800-HELP-FLA) and ask the Department of Agriculture and Consumer services to send you a printed copy of the book. It's not just a leaflet, it's almost the size of our local telephone book.

Using that book can sometimes be confusing. Many well-known charities have dozens of local chapters and affiliated organization that may be listed individually. The address to send contributions may not help; it may be the address of a fund-raising company that handles many clients. If you're having trouble finding the exact match for the listing, look for the "registration number" on the charity's printed material.

Once you've found the listing in the book or on the web page, you will know how much money that organization raised last year, how much they spent, and their surplus or deficit. Most significantly, expenditures will be broken into three broad categories: "Program Services," "Administrative," and "Fund Raising." Sometimes, "Program Services" is the smallest of the three. We recently helped a citizen look up a charity that appeared worthy of support. The citizen was contemplating sending five dollars, in the hope of helping the cause highlighted in the fund raising letter. From the information in the "Gift Givers' Guide," he learned the fund-raisers would keep the lion's share of his donation, with administrative overhead eating up more than half of the rest; the "cause" would receive less than 37 cents of a five dollar contribution.

The Guide will tell you how much of your dollar goes to the program, but it does not help you decide if that "program" is something you would choose to support with your hard-earned dollars. For that, you need still more information. You may call that 1-800-HELP-FLA number and ask for a copy of the charity's report... or you can ask the charity itself for their report and additional information.

"Is this a legitimate charity," is a fairly simple question to answer... if you define "legitimate" as registered with the state and having required documents on files. A more meaningful follow-up question might be "is this charity worthy of my support?" That's not as simple to answer. It's a judgment nobody can make for you. Information is available to make an informed decision... and we recommend taking advantage of that information.

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