By Scott Hammers

The Bulletin

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With the holiday season in full swing, many charitable organizations are relying on a spirit of generosity as they ramp up their fundraising efforts.

The season can also provide opportunities for the unscrupulous, according to the Oregon Attorney General’s Office, from outright scammers to legitimate organizations that fail to provide much bang for each donated buck

The AG’s office released its annual “worst charities” list Friday, a document that relies largely on an IRS filing called a 990. Every year, nonprofits are required to file a 990, detailing how much money the organization takes in, how it’s spent and how much directors and other key personnel are paid.

The 20 charities on the AG’s list, all of which are based outside of Oregon, are notable for their use of professional fundraising firms, which eat up much of the money contributed by donors.

The “worst” organization on the list, the Firefighters Support Foundation based in Greenfield, Massachusetts, spent just 6.5 percent of the $3.93 million collected in 2013 supporting firefighters, according to the calculations of the AG’s office. The group’s 2013 form 990 shows different revenue numbers, $4.15 million in revenue, but the same 6.5 percent spent on firefighters, and $3.73 million — 89.9 percent — spent on fundraising.

A review of 990s filed by the largest charitable and educational organizations based in Central Oregon showed very different practices, with most spending upwards of 80 percent of revenues on their expressed purpose, according to their most recent filings.

Of the 15 largest charitable and educational nonprofits in Central Oregon, none reported spending any money on outside fundraising firms.

Ellen Klem with the Attorney General’s Office said although 990s are an important insight into how nonprofits operate, they often fail to tell the whole story. Organizations will sometimes see their revenues and expenditures out of balance for a year or two for good reason.

“Over the years, things will change,” she said. “One year, a nonprofit might want to be saving a little bit more, say for buying a building. You might see various expenditures, and the very next year when they buy the building, things would be very different.”

Kate Medema, with the AG’s charitable giving donations division, said as a general rule, donors are better off giving to organizations that have a presence in their local community. It’s easier for donors to independently verify that such groups actually do what they claim to do, she said, or to contribute volunteer time instead of money.

Medema said a few minutes of research, including a visit to the AG’s online charities database, can often identify which charities fall short of their expressed goals. She said while there are legitimate charities that rely on direct mail and phone solicitation to raise money, Oregonians should be wary of giving to groups they’re unfamiliar with.

“If you get a phone call, a piece of mail, somebody comes to your door out of the blue, you should be suspicious,” she said.

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature passed a law eliminating state and local tax deductions for donations to charities that spend less than 30 percent of their revenue on their mission. Medema said over time the law should help weed out bad actors.

“Oregon is incredibly aggressive when it comes to enforcing these laws. We want donors to be informed and to know that the organizations they’re giving to are going to be using their money wisely,” she said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,