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WA Gives Generously – and Sometimes Gullibly

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December 11, 2008

Olympia, WA – Charities always hope for a boost in donations during the holiday season. If you're a donor, you'll want to make sure as much of your money as possible actually gets to the causes of your choice.

But when the pitch is made by phone, deciding if it's a legitimate cause can be challenging. Telephone solicitors have raised almost $2 billion dollars this year, nationwide. The 110 fundraising companies registered to make such calls in Washington get an annual checkup from state consumer protection agencies.

The information for 2008 has just been released. Depending on which fundraising company is doing the calling, the charity it represents may get more than 90 percent of the donation money--or less than 10 percent of it.

As Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed points out, there also are more charities operating in Washington now. About 7,800 are registered with his office, which is 800 more than last year. Some don't seem concerned that most of the donation money ends up in the pockets of hired fundraisers, he says.

"The response they've made to me when I've inquired as to why they would ever enter into such an arrangement is, 'Well, it's money that we wouldn't have gotten anyway'--even if it's as little as 16 percent of how much is raised. The courts have ruled that the state cannot restrict this. I would love to say that, through Washington State law, no more than 35 percent can go to the fundraisers. But the courts have said those are First Amendment liberties, so that just means, 'Donor beware.'"

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna is suing one telephone solicitation company, and considering suing another.

Fundraisers and charities are listed on the Secretary of State's website, either by name or by the county where they are registered to solicit donations (www.secstate.wa.gov/charities).

A free packet of information, "Check Before You Give," is available from the AARP Washington Fraud Fighter Call Center, 1-800-646-2283.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA