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EDITORIAL: Keep on Giving, but Be Careful

April 27, 2011 (Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News) We are a giving nation.

In 2009, Americans gave nearly $304 billion to charities, according to the Giving USA Foundation. That's the total from more than 75 million households, more than 1 million companies, 120,000 estates and 77,000 foundations, who supported more than 1.2 million IRS-registered charities and about 350,000 religious congregations.

The final numbers for 2010 aren't yet tallied, but the total may increase since 2009 donations fell slightly because of the poor economy.

Generous giving is part of our region's culture as well. Whether it's agencies such as the Great Rivers United Way, The Salvation Army, La Crosse Community Foundation, La Crosse Area Boys & Girls Club or the dozens of other worthy charities, groups or foundations in the area, we dig deep when it comes to supporting worthy causes. It's that benevolent spirit that is a cornerstone to building our high quality of life.

Last year local school children from nearly 50 schools raised $42,000 for the Pennies for Peace program after author Greg Mortenson appeared in the area. The money raised is supposed to help build schoolhouses in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But a recent CBS "60 Minutes" report said that in 2009 just 41 percent of what Mortenson raised was spent on schools, with the rest promoting his book "Three Cups of Tea." Mortenson and charity officials have denied the report.

We hope that Mortenson is correct and the hard work and dedication from thousands of area youths went to right cause and not for a book promotion.

But it's also a lesson that we should also be careful and deliberate when we do make a charitable donation. There are lots of pseudo-charitable organizations that are glad to take your money and deliver only a fraction to the cause you thought you were supporting. There's never any reason to feel pressured into making a donation to a group you've never heard of, especially if it comes through an unsolicited phone call. If it's a legitimate group, it would be happy to take your donation tomorrow or next week -- after you've checked it out. There are several websites that rate national organizations.

Many of us give so that we can take an income tax deduction. If that's the case, the Internal Revenue Service's Publication 78 lists most of the groups that qualify as a charitable organization. Publication 526 also explains how you can claim your deduction.

It's discouraging that some people and organizations make their living preying off the generosity of others. But with some care, we can continue to reap the benefits of giving and its enormous ripple effects here and around the globe.

Copyright (c) 2011, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Editorial and opinion content does not represent the opinions or beliefs of SmartPros Ltd.

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