Charities, borrowing a strategy from retailers, are tapping the Internet to boost revenue. And the Web sites run by charities make it possible for taxpayers to make tax-deductible contributions for 1999, using a charge card, right up until the midnight Dec. 31 deadline.
Some 3.5 million people gave to charity over the Web in the 12 months ended in August, and about 6 million say they probably will make online donations in the following year, according to a survey by Craver, Mathews, Smith & Co., a fund-raising consulting firm in Arlington, Va.
"People are getting more comfortable shopping on line, and they're also getting more comfortable giving on line," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington.
There are a variety of options for donating money over the Internet, all requiring the use of a charge or credit card. Donors can give directly through the Web sites of charities or through sites that house a variety of charities. There are also charity-sponsored "shopping mall" sites that allocate a portion of revenue from online purchases to a particular cause.
Some Web sites present enough information on line about philanthropic organizations for potential donors to compare one group to another. For people looking to donate time rather than money, some sites describe opportunities for doing volunteer work.
"With a few short clicks you can get quite a few details about charities you'd have had to get (previously) through phone calls and writing letters," said Bennett Weiner, director of the Philanthropic Advisory Service at the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va.
New socially responsible funds on the way
Mutual funds that screen companies based on a social criteria received a huge boost in credibility recently with announcements from Vanguard Group and TIAA-CREF that both plan to open so-called socially responsible funds.
Socially responsible mutual funds generally use "negative" screens to ferret out the stocks of companies investors feel do society more harm than good. Alcohol, tobacco and firearms stocks are frequently barred from socially responsible funds through negative screens.
In some cases, "positive" screens are used to reward companies whose records reflect progressive stances on the environment, labor practices and civic responsibility.
These types of funds, however, have always been considered something of a novelty.
Not any more.
Vanguard is America's second largest mutual fund company, trailing only Fidelity Investments. And TIAA-CREF invests the pension funds of millions of American teachers.
Don't forget about Roth IRAs
Amid the frenetic holiday activity, you may be ready to flop onto the couch and hibernate for a month or two.
The last thing you probably want to think about is yet another task. But I have one for you: Consider opening a Roth IRA.
You still have time to do it for this year. It must be done by the time you send your tax return off to the IRS in April. But now is the time to start thinking about it, and you can begin on the couch.
Opening a Roth is simple. You contact a broker, financial adviser or a mutual fund company, fill out a one-page form, deposit up to $2,000 and choose funds, stocks or bonds. But the trick may be to come up with money for a Roth IRA. So use your moment on the couch now to think about where to derive the money during the next three months.
Even if you start with less than $2,000, a Roth IRA will be a nice present for yourself, because you will have an investment that will grow without the taxman ever touching it.
So if you are 35 and you put $1,000 into a Roth IRA this year and it grows 11 percent a year during the next 25 years, you will have $13,600 that will be entirely yours when you are 60. That's different from a traditional IRA, which is taxed when you take money out for retirement.
New York policyholders can sue
New Yorkers who bought "vanishing premium" life insurance policies -- which most often turned out to contain vanishing promises by agents -- can sue insurers, the state's top court has determined.
The policies, which were much in vogue in the 1980s, may have been promoted with "deceptive marketing and sales practices" as defined by New York state General Business Law, the state Court of Appeals ruled 5-1 last week.
Two lower state courts had found otherwise, dismissing suits filed by several policyholders.
Vanishing premium policies were offered as "whole life" or "universal life" insurance policies. Under them, customers would pay premiums far higher than term life policies.
Typically, agents promised that in about eight years, coverage would be provided in perpetuity without further premiums or at a vastly reduced cost. The theory being sold by agents at the time was that the investment on the premiums the insurers would make would cover the premiums' annual costs in about eight years.
However a downturn in interest rates starting in the late 1980s wrecked the investment schedules outlined by the insurers to customers. Most holders of such policies were told that they'd have to continue paying premiums after the eight years had passed.