The year-end Christmas rush also means an increase in charitable donations. Carefully select any charity or non-profit. Infamous bank-robber Willie Sutton enlightened us years ago, ďThatís where the money is.Ē Donít let the possibility of foul play stop your good intentions, but be careful and do your research.



Avoid any charity that refuses to provide details about costs or its mission. Fraudsters arenít dumb and often they copy-cat legitimate charities with similar names. Google search the exact name of the charity. Use Americaís largest independent charity evaluator, Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org) to dig into finances.  Understand some new charities will not be listed.



Charity Navigator also provides guidelines for charitable giving and rates charities with stars, zero for poor, and four stars for excellent.



Taking a page from David Letterman, Charity Navigator has several Top Ten lists both naughty and nice. The Top Ten Consistently Low Rated Charities List showcases charities with the most consecutive years with zero stars. Sunshine State residents should be aware we have a top 10 entry ó State of Florida Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues, Inc.



For four consecutive years this South Florida based non-profit earned zero stars. More than 55 percent of its revenue went to administration or fundraising expenses and CEO pay was more than 8 percent. These numbers pale to the top dog, National Veterans Services, Inc., which has 10 years with zero stars. Most recent data shows only 18 percent of expenses dedicated to program expenses. 



Just like hedge funds and mutual funds there is nothing illegal about high expenses, but fraud is another story.



An Ohio jury recently convicted John David Cody, alias Bobby Thompson, for looting $100 million dollars using the United States Navy Veterans Association. The organizationís 2008 tax return showed an astonishing 99 percent of donations charged to overhead (The Tampa Bay Times, March 20, 2012).



Charity Navigatorís top charities pay less than 15 percent to hired fundraisers, and other experts recommend charities pay no more than 25 percent. According to contracts signed in Florida and Arizona, the Association paid 60 percent. Another red flag was the almost total anonymity of officers and employees. At the height of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq one of their scripts included pitches about helping soldiers in the field. Cody/Thompson should be grateful fraud is not a capital offense.



Donít let bad apples spoil good intentions; just follow the basic guidelines listed above. Charity does begin at home plus it is easier to research local efforts. I understand fiscal prudence and personal responsibility but the undeniable reality of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts mean hungry people, not just around Thanksgiving and Christmas either. Even though you donít see the face of hunger in the mirror it could be a face you see every day.



Ask Pennie Lucas at Caring and Sharing of South Walton. You can help by volunteering your time or donating non-perishable food products like canned tuna, canned chicken, rice, beans and peanut butter. Monetary gifts can be more efficient and give staff flexibility. Caring and Sharing of South Walton is at 121 Lynn Drive and you can reach Pennie at 267-2866. 



If Congress approves additional proposed SNAP cuts, food banks like Caring and Sharing would see their burdens double.



Buz Livingston, CFP, has the only hourly financial planning and investment management firm headquartered in Blue Mountain Beach. For information, visit www.livingstonfinancial.net or visit the new office at 2050 Scenic 30A, M1-Unit 230, Redfish Village.