COVID-19 fundraising scams hurt the real charities helping those on the front lines

A part of the current COVID-19 landscape is beginning to look like a repeat of the months and years following September 11, 2001. Back then everyone wanted to help the heroes of that awful day. There are wonderful charities that provided a great deal to FDNY and NYPD and the families of firefighters and police officers we lost. But there were also many “charities” that did little more than enrich the people running them. They diverted generous donations away from organizations making a difference. The public wants to help those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, be an educated donor, and make sure your money is being used for the purposes you intend.

In the years following 9/11 and through today, lists of the worst charities include many claiming to help firefighters and police officers. One list still had four fire and police charities in its top 20 of charities to avoid.

I take this personally because I am a firefighter and the executive director of a 501(C)3 that has long helped the families of fallen firefighters. On September 12, 2001, I was privileged to lead a team of people to New York and serve with members of the FDNY and assist the families of the fallen. All these years later we
are still working closely with and help fund FDNY’s Counseling Services Unit. We were far from alone in providing much needed help in New York. But as I looked at organizations claiming to provide support, and were not providing any meaningful assistance, I realized there were important lessons about giving that
everyone should learn.

Today, many of us not only want to help the firefighters and police officers on the pandemic front lines, but also the doctors, nurses and others who are putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. I encourage you to be generous, but to also make smart choices about who you trust with your money.

It is important to do your homework and become an informed donor to ensure your money is used wisely. A good place to start is Charity Navigator’s website Charity Navigator evaluates U.S. charitable organizations. It does not accept donations or advertising from any of the charities
it evaluates.

One key item to look for is how much of your money will go toward the mission of the organization. Well-run charities strive to keep administrative costs below 25%. Having at least three quarters of your money being put to work helping others is a good sign. You also can tell a lot about a charity by how it appeals to you in its advertising or solicitations. Do not fall for the do or die pitch. Turn away from high pressure
tactics that want you to donate on the spot. Avoid any solicitation that asks you to wire money.

Sound-alike names are a common scam. It is a problem I deal with multiple times each year as executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. It is also a problem for my counterpart at the National Police Foundation, James Birch. Neither of our organizations solicits donations by phone. That does not stop others from either invoking the names of our organizations or something very similar
during telephone canvassing. Phone solicitation is an expensive proposition. Any organization doing it is likely spending most of your donation on overhead or using professional fundraisers getting a big cut of the donated funds.

By now you have probably experienced “charity” phone solicitors using fake numbers local to your community. They do so to get you to answer. I strongly suggest not trusting your money to any organization that needs to trick you into answering your phone for a donation.

Also, be careful about who you are sharing your credit card information with. That is why doing your homework now -- before giving money -- is key.

One final tip is specific to COVID-19. We know there are lots of organizations urgently looking for a vaccine to help prevent the spread of the virus. While it might sound good and tug at your heartstrings, it is highly unlikely any of those research organizations are also soliciting funds to find a COVID-19 cure.

With the current economic pressures, it is admirable so many are still willing to give up some of their hard-earned money to help others. That is an important part of who we are as a country. It is also just as important to be diligent, so the money you donate truly goes to a good cause.

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