'Tis the season to be giving to charities -- carefully.
South Carolina regulators say tight economic times lead to an increase in less-than-giving nonprofits aiming to scoop a few bucks from holiday do-gooders.
"They know more people are in need," said S.C. Secretary of State Mark Hammond, whose office oversees more than 8,000 registered charities. "And we get so many solicitations in South Carolina because we're so generous."
South Carolina ranks fifth in the country in the percentage of discretionary income donated to charity, according to an analysis of IRS data by The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Many charities do the right things.
Three out of the four of the 6,350 charities that must file contribution data with the state spend 65 percent or more of their donations -- considered the standard for well-performing nonprofits -- on their program goals, the Secretary of State's office said.
But that means more than 1,650 charities registered with the state don't follow the guidelines for how much of the cash should go to pay salaries and other fundraising expenses.
"Donors need to do some research," Hammond said.
The Secretary of the State's website lists the percentage of a charity's contributions that goes to its programming. But folks getting the calls, emails and letters can help find charities that don't follow state law by not registering.
"The donors are our eyes and ears out there," Hammond said.
The state settled recently with the Veterans Support Organization for not registering its solicitors and misrepresenting how much money went to programming. The nonprofit agreed to a 15-year ban on soliciting in South Carolina and a $5,000 fine.
The Secretary of State's office helps donors spot a few of the good charities from the bad ones with its annual Angels and Scrooges list, the latest of which was released last month.
The Angels included Second Helpings in Beaufort County and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society in Beaufort.
The Scrooges included some groups with names that could win over sympathetic donors: Breast Cancer Survivors Foundation of Aventura, Fla., which gave only 19.3 percent to charity; Firefighters Charitable Foundation of Farmingdale, N.Y., which gave 7 percent; and Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund of Sarasota, Fla., which gave 0.9 percent.
Know before giving
Ask a charity where it is located. Get a street address. (A post office box is a red flag.) Ask for a phone number so you can call.
Ask if a charity is registered with the S.C. Secretary of State's office, as required by law, then check for yourself online at scsos.com or call 888-242-7484.
Ask what percentage of contributions go to the charitable purpose. The minimum for an effective nonprofit is 65 percent.
Never give your credit card or bank information over the phone or Web before you have taken time to check the charity. Ask them to send a letter so you can mail a donation -- and give you some time for research.
SOURCES: S.C. Secretary of State; The (Columbia) State