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BEING GENEROUS -- AND WISE

It's fast becoming an old story, but no less depressing because of it. Generous New Yorkers who donate to charities via telemarketing campaigns are likely to find that only a small portion of their gifts actually go to charity. The lion's share -- sometimes all of it -- ends up in the pocket of telemarketers.

Statewide in 1998, just 29 percent of money collected in fund-raising campaigns made it to the charities. That translates to $52 million of $178 million raised. For some charities, that may still represent a larger influx of cash than they would otherwise receive, but it remains an appallingly low portion.

The record in Western New York is about par, according to the state attorney general's office, with the share of donations going to charities ranging from a tolerable 58.5 percent (for the American Legion Convention Corp. of Erie County, N.Y., raised by Heritage Publishing Co.) to a pitiful 9.6 percent (for the Erie County Association of Chiefs of Police Inc., raised by Campaign Headquarters Inc.)

Nothing illegal is going on, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. Telemarketers are allowed to keep as much as they can negotiate with charities. That means the only recourse for givers is to check out not just the telemarketers who are asking for their money, but the charities themselves, who may or may not use donations efficiently. Fortunately, help is available.

The state attorney general's Web site (www.oag.state.ny.us) includes a report called Pennies for Charities that provides a wealth of historical data on telemarketers. The report also includes links to reports on charities themselves. It is also available by mail.

For anyone with access to a computer, it's an easy first check on people who want their money. When a telemarketer calls, get the organization's name (they are required by law to disclose it), the exact charity it is representing (there may be vast differences between organizations with similar names) and tell him you'll consider a donation after doing some research. You can also ask the telemarketer what percent of your money will actually go to the charity.

The point, though, is to be informed. Americans are generous people, but that doesn't mean they need to be careless. If you want to be sure your charitable donation does the most good, take the time to check out the organizations with their hands in your pocket.

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