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By knowing the many ways that charities are regulated, both by the states and the IRS, you can better protect yourself against fraudulent charities and know that your charitable contribution will be properly used for the intended purpose. And if you do fall prey, you should know how to complain most effectively.
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Giving to a charity is a worthy objective. However, for you and society to get the maximum benefit from your contribution, you need to give wisely and make sure that your contribution serves the intended purpose.
If you aren't completely knowledgeable about your intended charities, you should review their operations and practices before giving. Even if the charity is a household name, its practices may be wasteful. For example, a major part of its receipts from contributors may be used not for charitable purposes but to pay an outside fundraiser.
Unfortunately, many charities go beyond wasteful practices and are outright frauds. This Financial Guide will discuss how the various states and the IRS regulate charities to minimize the abuses in this area and explains how to files a complaint against a phony charity.
Most state governments regulate charitable organizations. To obtain information on these regulations, which vary from state to state, contact the appropriate government agency (usually a division of the Attorney General or the Secretary of State). State government agencies do not approve charities. However, they do require charities to follow certain regulations.
Most states have registration and licensing rules requiring charities to file certain basic information, such as the official name, principal address, and purpose of the organization. This requirement generally applies to most charities, whether national or local, that solicit in the state.
Annual reporting is also a common state requirement and generally involves the filing of the charity's financial statements. In many cases, a copy of the charity's federal tax return (IRS Form 990) is accepted by the state as fulfilling its annual reporting requirements.
Some states have specific regulations for professional fund-raisers used by charities. They may require the fund-raiser to register with the state and put up a bond ranging from $2,500 to $50,000 to reimburse the state for any fines and/or penalties imposed on the fundraiser.
To obtain tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization has to file certain documents with the IRS that prove it is organized and operated for specified charitable purposes. The IRS looks at these documents in terms of whether they meet the Code's requirements; it does not judge charities' worthiness.
Organizations with 501(c)(3) status are those that the IRS considers charitable, educational, religious, scientific or literary, those that prevent cruelty to animals, and those that foster national or international sports competition. When the IRS rules positively on an application, the organization is eligible to receive contributions deductible as charitable donations for federal income tax purposes. The charity receives a Determination Letter formally notifying it of its charitable status. Older charities may have a 101(6) ruling, which corresponds to Section 501(c)(3) of the current IRC. Churches and small charities with less than $5,000 of annual income do not have to apply to the IRS for exemption.
You can obtain three documents on a specific charity by sending a written request to the attention of the Disclosure Officer at your nearest IRS District Office. The IRS will charge a per-page copying fee for these items. To speed your request, have the full, official name of the charity, as well as the city and state location. These three publicly available documents are:
The charity registration office in your state (usually a division of the state attorney general's office) may also have a copy of the charity's latest Form 990, along with other publicly available information on charities soliciting in your state.
A charity's application for tax-exempt status and its annual Form 990 must be made available for public inspection during regular business hours at the principal office of the charity and at each of its regional or district offices containing three or more employees. Although the charity is not required to provide photocopies of the return, it must have a copy on hand for public inspection.
Complaints about charities are uncommon. However, if sweepstakes prizes, membership benefits, the charity's magazine, or ordered merchandise is not received, donors may need to file complaints. Donors may also be concerned about duplicate mailings from the same charity or may wish to remove their names from the charity's mailing list.
Here is how to file a complaint: