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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Avoid guesswork when making charitable gifts

By Kelvin H. Takeya

Last December, in the spirit of the holiday season, a group of well-intentioned friends wanted to make a sizable gift to charity but had no idea of where or how to do it. With only a few weeks left in the year, they ended up hastily choosing organizations based on their best guess.

Luckily for them, there is no shortage of creditable charitable organizations out there asking for support during the holidays. But why wait until Christmas to decide which charities to support?

How about thinking of giving as an investment — something that requires serious time, thought and commitment? Unlike donating to unplanned disaster relief efforts, such as the recent Indian Ocean tsunami recovery, the rest of your giving should be treated as a lifelong pursuit — a journey.

But with so many organizations out there — about 6,000 in Hawai'i alone, and an estimated 800,000 nationwide — the task of determining the worthiness of charities can be daunting. Still, donors should take on the responsibility of developing a relationship with an organization.

More and more, Americans are being encouraged to seek out information on which nonprofit organizations are achieving results and supporting them based on what they find out. As a result, there are a number of publications, Web services and resources that try to rank nonprofits.

The problem is, however, that they often use metrics that focus on numbers and efficiency as the principal means for evaluation.

Although financial returns are important, consider beginning your search by answering some basic questions.

First, think about the issues or problems that you are interested in solving. Your goals should fit in with the organization's goals and purpose.

Then, think about which organizations you know that do a good job in addressing these needs. Helpful Web sites include Guidestar, a national database of nonprofit organizations that have filed a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue

Service (www.guidestar.org), and the Hawai'i Chapter of the Better Business Bureau (www.hawaii.bbb.org). In addition, look up the organization's Web site and annual report for a good idea of how it tells its story and how it has made a difference.

Contact the executive director or the board chairman; it's a perfectly acceptable way to get your questions answered, and it shows genuine interest. Perhaps the best way to assess a nonprofit, however, is to get down into the trenches with the organization as a volunteer.

Finally, look into the sustainability of the organization. Is the organization able to adapt to changing conditions around it? What obstacles has the organization overcome and how were they handled? Do you see a potential for the organization to grow? Ask yourself whether this is the kind of organization to which you can feel good about committing your time, money or other resources.

Giving away money isn't easy, and it shouldn't be. It needs to taken as seriously as any other long-term investment — kids' college plans, retirement and relationships. Check out organizations during the year and then, when the spirit of the season moves you, stay with the organizations to which you've committed and feel most passionate about. Invest in them over time. It will make the journey even more meaningful.

Kelvin H. Taketa is president and CEO of the Hawai'i Community Foundation. E-mail him at kelvin@hcf-hawaii.org.