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Hot on the Web

Charity begins on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 3, 2003
(Issue 2101, Nations at War)

The holidays are over, and except for our expanded midsections, are receding into memory.

What doesn't recede is the need charities have for our support all year long. While we may only remember to help at Christmas and Thanksgiving, there are still those who are hungry, who are homeless, who are alone all year long.

But when the spirit of altruism strikes, you want to make sure that your money is really going to help those who need it. Truth be told, in today's economy few of us feel safe from the vicissitudes of fortune — we all realize that we may be the next to need a little help.

Where can you go to find out which charitable organizations are on the up and up?

The Web, of course!

Better charity bureau

The Better Business Bureau runs, founded in 2001 from the merger of the National Charities Information Bureau and the BBB's Philanthropic Advisory Service. provides reports on charities for which it receives the greatest volume of inquiries. In its reports, it looks at the business end of their operations only — is the money spent consistent with how it is raised? So a charity isn't judged on whether its intentions are good or not, but merely on whether the group is effective at furthering those intentions.

There are several hundred charities in the database, ranging from Catholic Charities to the ACLU.

Of more interest are the alerts provides — for instance, the national Red Cross came for criticism for giving donors incomplete and misleading information after 9/11.

Then there is the highly useful Donor section — lots of how-to articles here with tips on how to spot a scam, how to rank local charities. And, in true BBB fashion, if you feel a charity you've donated to is a scam, you can file a complaint against them and will investigate.

Finding a non-profit on here is easy under the Charity Reports section — they're listed alphabetically. Since the list isn't all that long (as mentioned, only the several hundred largest are included), you can quickly determine whether the group you're interested in is listed or not.

And if you donate $45 or more to, you will receive their quarterly newsletter with updated tips and reports.

Other watchdogs

There are other groups besides the BBB claiming to keep an eye on charities. claims to keep an eye on 1,700 charities. It's navigation isn't nearly as smooth nor intuitive as's, though, and finding those charities is more difficult.

The categories it has selected aren't very clear, for one.

Then there's the heavy-handed political bias of their rating system. Planned Parenthood is a recommended four-star charity, while not one listed organization that offers alternatives to abortion got more than two. And they couldn't even find BirthChoice, the largest organization dedicated to providing women non-abortion alternatives? (Hint: It's at Hmmm ...

But the most egregious weakness of CharityNavigator is that these are all national charities — many of us want to give to the local homeless shelter or food bank — but when you read of how those supposed ministry representatives at the airport are not actually feeding the hungry, you want to dig a little deeper before handing over your hard-earned coin. claims to have more than 850,000 non-profits — including, quite obviously, the local charities a lot of us would like to help. The search engine isn't all that useful, though — type in Red Cross, for instance, and you not only get the national group and all the local affiliates, but any organization doing any business with the Red Cross. It's rather overwhelming trying to sort through the search results.

And while you can peruse the organizations' own self-descriptions off the search results, if you want to look at an independent analyst's evaluation of how they raise and spend their money, you have to subscribe to Guidestar first. That may fly with large corporations looking for a tax write-off, but most donations to charity come from individuals and few of us are going to pay money to find out how to donate money.

Even if it does make sense.