Guest Author - Evelyn Rainey
There are so many fantastic charitable organizations to assist veterans, I could write about one a month and never run out. I support several of them financially and by other gifts, too. Some I admire from afar and hope one day to contribute something. I often encourage you, my readers, to follow your hearts and minds (and budgets) and do likewise.
However, I have come to the conclusion that for every good charitable organization for veterans, there are many not-so-savory ones. When I was a college-girl in Georgia, a popular song at the time was by Christopher Ryan Jones Send Your Money to Jesus But Address It To Me. As I read over yet another email from someone who was positive that I would not want to miss the opportunity to (1) send money to, (2) write a glowing article in support of, (3) voluntarily write letters to unsuspecting victims/donators on behalf of, (4) et cetera, I came to the realization that I may not be the only person who has that look which PT Barnum described as belonging to “one born every minute”.
You worked long and hard for your money. Here are some simple things to look at when you evaluate a veterans’ organization before you hand over that same hard-earned contribution.
[Please note: While I will be posting specific examples directly from real (unnamed) websites, I am not claiming that the organization is a scam. Nor am I claiming that the organization is valid and trustworthy. No claims here. None.]
There are some that are obvious:
Twenty-year old holding a cardboard sign claiming to be a homeless Viet Nam veteran…
Person who won’t take the food you hand them but holds out for cash…
Asks for money over the phone (unless they are related to you)…
Some are more subtle nuances.
Check the name of the organization.
A veteran organization by any other name is not going to benefit the people you want it to. Some titles can be intentionally misleading. The VA is good if it is the Veterans Administration. But A could also stand for ‘Association’, ‘of America’, ‘Anonymous’, or even ‘Administrators’. None of these VA-sound-a-likes are bad, if they exist at all. But be sure you are in contact with the proper organization. If someone writes or calls you, take time to jot down the full name and contact information. I’m going to assume you all have access to a computer. Do a search of the organization, the contact info, and then the phone number. Did they match? There is a terrific site called Who Called Us which will tell you the business name behind any phone number. So if someone calls or writes you declaring to be Giving Millions to Military Vets and the phone number comes up as Telemarketing the Masses, save your money. Also, be sure to give the phone number a call, for the very same reason.
Don’t just trust their website address.
Do a web-search on their name. If it came up in one of the top twenty, it is more reliably a real organization than not. Look at the URL. Is its domain name the address or do you have to go through a server to a person’s name and then to a page number to get there? Chances are, if they are valid enough to be a non-for-profit organization, they are going to have their own domain.
Take that idea one step further to their contact email.
If they have their own domain, they will most likely have their own email address at that domain. So if the contact is through one of the (wonderful, nothing wrong with, not saying nothing against them) ‘free’ email groups, chances are you might need to take a closer look before uncapping your pen.
Take a look at the snail address. (Yes, it should list one.)
(1) In order to file a business plan, all 501’s have to have a real address. And since they have a real address, why not list it?
(2) Some people do not give via plastic. Real addresses allow for check or money orders to be sent.
(3) Is it a valid address? Use a map-search engine of your choice and pull up the address. Can’t find it? Chances are it’s a drop box somewhere, not even necessarily in the US, even though it lists a street address. You can also go a step or two further if you get that sneaking suspicion that something may be amiss. I was contacted by a gentleman who wanted my help with his huge veteran-helping organization. It sounded wonderful. When I pulled up the address, it was three blocks from my sister’s house. Hmm. No huge business complex complete with warehouses, training facilities, workshops, trucks, loading bays in that neighborhood. You can always pull a valid piece of real estate up on that county’s property appraiser website, if you have some spare time.
What are they?
All non-profit businesses are listed as 501 C-somethings. It takes a whole lot of time filling out the plans and documentations to become a 501 C–something, so chances are if they spent that much time, effort, sweat and yes - tears to be certified, they will list it on their website and/or letter head. If you give money to a 501 C (3), you can claim it on your taxes. If it is a 501 C(4), you can’t. Did they discuss or promote a political point of view? C (3) organizations are prohibited from doing so. C (4) groups can lobby and participate in political agendas. So, if they want you to donate money to help vote against Veterans in Ice Cream Parlors and claim your money will be tax-deductable, hang up.
If they do not list themselves as a tax-exempt organization, then they are a business. Which is OK. Do you want to give money to a business which claims to support veterans?
As copy/pasted directly from a site, "however unlike many other non-profit businesses, we actually "make" something worth having". This business never listed its 501 status. It often suggested that the money it wanted me to send them would "go directly back to the veterans in the form of better wages, upgraded machines, and the opportunity to expand our work force." Please note, this particular organization looked incredible. The product they offer was beautiful and the idea that they are veterans at work for a better world is beyond blemish. I am trying to point out here that they are not a charity, they are a business. How you spend your money is up to you. Just know where you’re spending it.
Andrew Heck (Charity Navigator November 10, 2005) suggests “Ask to see a copy of the charity's annual report or a brochure describing its mission, accomplishments and a current financial statement. You can also request a copy of the organization's IRS form 990. Federal law requires nonprofit organizations to provide their last 3 IRS form 990s (tax returns) within 30 days of your request.”
Look at the links on the website.
Do they work and are they kept updated? In what way are they associated with /support/approve of this charity? Would the places linked know, support, and approve of this organization?
Do they make claims that are backed up by reality?
A site I recently visited stated it was established to increase "the number of veterans we can get back to work." Actual employees: Ten.
One claimed that I should financially support it because it "is currently investigating a confirmed situation where 1,200 homeless Veterans are living in (censored). We are working in conjunction with Mr. (censored) and Ms. (censored) to coordinate a full recovery program for these homeless Veterans." Both persons mentioned are incredible soldiers for homeless vets, but I could never backtrack to this organization from any magazine article or website listing about them.
One organization stated it was "Based on the highly successful non-profit business model of (censored)" However, it is not associated with that particular nation-wide organization in any actual way.
Are there any examples, pictures, or actual proof of where the money went? Are the pictures CG or real?
Is this organization offering you something the VA already provides like insurance, health/medical, loans, etc?
Look at the Frequently Asked Questions or the Comments Page.
Everyone has their own style of writing; their own “voice”. As you read the questions or comments, do they sound as if only one person wrote them all? Do they address the mission of the charity/organization or seem to re-iterate the fine points of the website’s other pages? Post your own question or comment and track how long – if ever – the post appears. Do you get any response from it -- other than a “Send your money to Veterans but address it to me” form letter?
I saved the easiest test for last: Take out your red pencil and play teacher. Look at the spelling, grammar and mechanics of the actual text. See anything that needs a nasty red circle? People dress for success. Organizations do, too. More than likely, if an organization is above board, their website reflects this in a professional manner. I am not saying the websites I copy/pasted these examples from are not legitimate. I am saying they come across as unprofessional (and really irritate me – see my bio for further explanation).
"heros" spelling error – should be ‘heroes’
"is please to provide an opportunity" grammatical error – should be ‘pleased’
"Veterans ability" mechanical error – should be possessive veteran’s
"They are our brothers and sisters that have risk their lives to help preserve our Country." dialect and punctuation errors - should be ‘risked’ and ‘country’
Give. Give money to veterans. Give time to veterans. Give talents and hobbies and special gifts to veterans. Give opportunities and hopes and challenges to them, too. Just be sure who you address it to.