Word to the Wise: Tips on giving to police and firefighter organizations

The police and firefighters in your community are people who put their lives on the line daily to protect you, your family and your community. So when you get a call or a letter asking you to give to a police or firefighter group, your first reaction is probably a generous one.

But wait. There are a lot of hype merchants out there, fast-talking hucksters only too happy to take your dollars without giving you all the facts needed to make an informed-giving decision. If you donate to groups like these, your hardworking local police or firefighters might not be helped much, if at all. And you’ll have poured your hard-earned money down the drain. If you are considering supporting police, firefighter and even veteran causes, the BBB advises you to consider the following.

Most police and firefighter groups are not charities. While some groups are 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charities, most are labor organizations, fraternal groups or benevolent associations. Make sure to ask the group for its tax identification letter and a copy of their IRS 990 form to determine whether your contribution will be tax-deductible.

Local police officers and firefighters are usually not involved. Don’t make the assumptions based on the name alone; the words “police” and “firefighter” in an organization’s name does not necessarily mean that local members are involved. If your goal is to help locally, contact your local police or fire departments to ask how you can help.

Don’t believe promises of special treatment. If such suggestions or threats are used, contact your local police department, the Federal Trade Commission and the BBB.

Ask for written materials. Learn more about the organization’s finances before giving. It should raise a red flag if the organization is unwilling or reluctant to provide this information.

Find out how much of your gift will be spent on fundraising costs. In some cases, fundraising expenses for police and firefighter organizations can be as high as 90 percent or more of the funds collected. That means that 90 cents or more of every dollar collected actually goes to the telemarketer, not the organization whose name is being used.

If asked to buy tickets to send needy kids to an entertainment event, ask how the children are chosen, how many will attend, how tickets will be distributed and if transportation has been arranged for the children. Many times the soliciting organizations have not made arrangements with local children’s charities, might not provide transportation for the children or few children may actually attend the event. Many times, no venue has even been secured for the event.

If your business is asked to buy advertising space in a police or firefighting journal, ask how many copies of the publication will be distributed, who will receive them, if there is a cover price, the estimated publication date and ask to see a copy of the draft and published version of the ad. In some cases few copies of the publication are ever distributed and those that are given out may be done haphazardly.

Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB at 478-742-7999, or by emailing