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Greetings, Matt:

After giving by mail to a couple of good causes, I'm buried with every sort of charity asking for money. I know they have sold my name around, so I always ask them what percent goes to the charity and what percent to administration. Almost all say 10% to 20% goes to the charity and 80% to administration, except if you write "Restrict" on your check, then the entire amount has to go to the charity. My questions are, is that true, and who keeps an eye on that to make sure they do it?

-- Daniel in Clairemont

Well, no good deed goes unpunished, Daniel. Mail-in charitability just nets you more mail-in begging. I guess the only up side is that you're on the mailing list of Nice Guys. Pretty amazing, though, that a charity would confess that only a tenth of its revenue goes to good deeds. I hope you file those in the trash can. According to the charity watchers, that's a pitiful record. As a rule of thumb, they say, the cost of raising the money should be no more than 40% of donations.

So, you're cutting your annual check to Save the Snails and you want every last dollar to be used for snail-saving purposes... No luxury suites for the jet-set CEO, no black-tie fundraisers for the snoberazzi. What you want to make, then, is a restricted donation. You have to specify that it's restricted and tell them what they can spend it on. By law, your wishes should be followed. But of course there is no way you can be guaranteed that your particular dollars are spent according to your directions. You have to trust that you're dealing with an honest organization that doesn't flout the law. A background check is probably in order before you give, especially if it's a smaller or local charity that's not well known.

Two groups offer free evaluations of the larger charities, mostly national: the Better Business Bureau's Giving Alliance (www.give.org) and the Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org). For smaller charities, try www.lookup.bbb.org to find the URL for your local Better Biz Bureau. Of course, if you're not happy with somebody else's rating, you can examine the IRS Form 990 for a particular nonprofit. This is the information form every nonprofit has to file with the feds, breaking down their income and outgo. Try www.guidestar.org for details about 990s.

Most ratings rank charities by how lean and mean they are. But some nonprofits point out that effectiveness is perhaps more important and harder to rate looking just at income and expenses. And charities don't run on air; they do need unrestricted donations to pay the rent. It's not unheard of for charities to turn down restricted donations, usually large ones with lots of strings attached. One generous soul recently took a charity to court, claiming his donation was misused. Nobody needs that kind of aggravation. And charities, especially those like the Red Cross, also need unrestricted donations to help amass enough cash to be prepared to act immediately when the next emergency comes up. So, do your homework, then hope for the best.

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