By Andrew Zashin*

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.

Just the other day I received a telephone call soliciting a donation for what sounded to be a worthy cause. I hadn’t heard of the organization before. So, I did the prudent thing and asked for more information so that I could look into it and make an informed decision before making any donation.

The caller was very aggressive, giving me “information” about the supposed charity that was clearly read from a script, and his canned speech contained no useful information. I continued to push for detail about where my money would be going, at which time the caller determined that I was “clearly interested in helping.” He agreed to send me literature, but insisted on a firm commitment as to the amount I was intending to donate. Bored with his antics and suspicious of his motives, I ended the call, without making a donation.

Had I been the intended victim of a scammer that day? Possibly. Or perhaps I was the victim of a (notoriously aggressive) professional fundraising company that would have collected a large portion of my donation before passing along a much smaller percentage to the charitable cause I wanted to support. I wasn’t comfortable with either scenario.

I made no donation that day because I didn’t believe that my money was going to end up where I wanted it to. But imagine if, instead of me, that caller had reached a person who was persuaded by the pitch. Someone who genuinely wanted to help. Maybe someone gullible. Maybe someone elderly. Maybe someone who simply trusted too much in the inherent good of an aggressive cold-calling fundraiser who couldn’t articulate where the money was going to go. No doubt my caller collected from others that day.

So, when you get that call, how do you know if the charity is legitimate? How do you know if the money is going where you think it is? Even the most reputable charitable organizations have overhead costs and it is not unreasonable for such an organization to spend money on fundraising efforts. But how do you know if the allocations are within a bandwidth that you consider reasonable?

Fortunately, the internet has made it easier than ever. You can research charitable organizations through sites like Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) and Charity Watch (charitywatch.org), the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (give.org) and GuideStar (guidestar.org). These sites offer useful information about the governance of organizations, not to mention fundraising efforts and the portion of operating expenses going toward various activities.

Most organizations’ tax filings can be found online, and the Internal Revenue Service and the Ohio Secretary of State can also be good sources of information to help confirm that a charitable organization has tax-exempt status and a stated charitable purpose. All it takes is a little bit of legwork to make sure that your money is going where you think it is, and you won’t be swindled by that aggressive cold-caller.

*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.