Before you donate, check out the organization

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Some basic homework can help ensure that donations go to those who need them

This time of year, more than any other, tugs at the heart.

As Christmas and the a new year approach and the turkey and dressing of Thanksgiving give way, the cold, shorter days tend to place many of us in a reflective mood. We think of loved ones we have been separated from, whether from loss or choice. We look back at what we have accomplished — or haven’t accomplished — for the year. We hear from old friends we miss, think of long-gone days when the magic of Christmas shined so brightly, fret over what gifts to buy and wonder how the long year suddenly got so short.

We read stories and watch movies that generate images of the ideal holiday, and judge ourselves harshly for never quite being able to pull the same thing off in real life.

And many of us feel an urge to share a little of what we have with those less fortunate, an admirable attitude.

It is one that we hope will be prevalent this Christmas and Hanukkah season, this wanting to do good for someone who is enduring tough times. The economy over the past few years has been rough on all of us, but some are finding the road even more bumpy.

Before you give to a cause, however, engage your mind as well as your heart. There are — it is sad to say — those who prey upon people who feel the spirit of giving.

There are numerous organizations that do real good this time of year. Two of the most conspicuous are the Salvation Army, with its trademark Red Kettles, and Toys for Tots, which provides gifts for families who otherwise might not have presents for their children on Christmas morning.

Make sure before you part with your hard-earned money or before you donate a gift that the charity you are dealing with is legitimate cause and that the majority of your gift won’t be spent on overhead. The Better Business Bureau has some basic steps you can take to ensure the donation you are making will go to the people who need it.

— Get the charity’s exact name. With so many charities in existence, mistaken identity is a common problem. Thousands of charities have “cancer” in their name, for example, but no connection with one another.

— Resist pressure to give on the spot, whether from a telemarketer or door-to-door solicitor.

— Be wary of heart-wrenching appeals. What matters is what the charity is doing to help.

— Press for specifics. If the charity says it’s helping the homeless, for example, ask how and where it’s working.

— Check websites for basics. A charity’s mission, program and finances should be available on its site. If not, check for a report at www.give.org.

— Check with state charity officials. In many states, charities are required to register, usually with the office of the attorney general, before soliciting. In Georgia, you can go to the Secretary of State’s website, http://sos.georgia.gov/securities/charities_paid_solicitors.htm.

— Don’t assume that every soliciting organization is tax exempt as a charity. You can readily check an organization’s tax status at www.irs.gov/app/eos.

There are many Georgians who can use a helping hand this holiday season. And helping someone through tough times is a reward in itself.

When you help someone out this holiday season — and any other time of the year — your heart is in the right place. Make sure that your gift or monetary donation goes to the right place as well.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board