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Be cautious of charities that inundate you with gifts during the holidays

Some charities send people gifts during the holidays, which should make you cautious. CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Published Dec. 12, 2016

'Tis the season for giving — by charities, that is.

If you're like many Americans, you've been inundated with "gifts'' from charities trying to encourage — or shame — you into donating. In the past few weeks, for example, this reporter has received:

One personalized day planner.

Two dream catchers.

Three ballpoint pens.

Eight sheets of wrapping paper.

Nine calendars.

13 note pads.

16 sheets of address labels.

85 gift tags.

And a partridge in a pear tree, on one of 54 greeting cards complete with envelopes.

"Charities believe that they will get a better response by sending out little gifts or trinkets but people ought to be careful,'' said Daniel Borochoff, president of Charity Watch. ''Lots of times the groups that do this don't perform as well as those that don't.''

As a rule of thumb, charities should invest at least 75 percent of the money they receive on programs and services for the causes they espouse. Many, though, fall far short of that goal.

Borochoff once argued with a group that claimed the trinkets it sent were a "program expense'' directly benefitting Native Americans. After admitting the items were "from, like, China'' and not made by Native Americans, Borochoff recalls, the group then argued that the mailings were a legitimate program cost "because they increased activity at the post office near where the Indians live.''

"I was asking them: Are you training people to make these? Are you lending them tools or supplies?'' Borochoff recalled. "No, no, no, they weren't doing any of that. That's why it's important to think about in what way this (donation) might be helping somebody.''

Read More: America's Worst Charities, a Tampa Bay Times special report

Just because a charity sends a gift, there's no obligation to donate and no need to feel guilty if you use the item — "it's being done to manipulate you,'' Borochoff said. He finds it a bit curious, though, that so many charities send out personalized address labels at a time when far fewer people write letters or pay their bills by mail.

"I get so many (labels) you could never, ever use them all,'' he said. "My father had stacks of them.''

Out of pangs of conscience, trinket recipients often donate a few dollars although that can encourage charities to keep on soliciting. And in the wake of an especially contentious U.S. presidential election, the appeals for donations could come from a growing array of organizations.

"With the changes in government,'' Borochoff said, "environmental groups and family planning groups and civil rights group feel threatened by the new administration. I cringe at the term but those are sometimes called 'rage donations.' I don't want people giving out of rage — you've got to think it through.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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