We Americans are often described as self-absorbed, mean-spirited and unsympathetic to the plight of others.
But you wouldn't get that impression from how much we give to others in need. In 2014, individuals, businesses and foundations gave more than $358 billion to various causes, from cancer research to animal welfare. That's an average of nearly $3,000 per household each year.
But as generous as we want to be, we also need to be careful about where our money goes in order to ensure it's doing the most good for the people we want to help.
One tale of caution came last month in the form of investigations by The New York Times and CBS News into the spending practices of a charity that helps people to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude: our veterans.
The Wounded Warrior Project — started 13 years ago by a wounded Marine veteran who passed out backpacks full of toiletries and other essentials at veterans hospitals — has grown into a $372 million juggernaut. It is now one of the nation's most visible and fastest-growing charities.
But the investigations into the charity's spending practices reveal that an inappropriate amount of the money you so generously donate to help veterans is being spent on high salaries for executives (the CEO made $473,000 in 2014), expensive first-class travel, and public relations and lobbying. According to the Times report, the charity spent more than 40 percent of its revenue on overhead, far more than many veterans organizations do. In addition, the charity has been accused of glossing over the help it’s providing veterans.
This is not to say that the charity isn't doing good work. It does help veterans recover from PTSD, addresses the effects of traumatic brain injuries and provides supplemental health care for vets, among its many activities.
And this isn't to say you shouldn't contribute to this organization. But as with any product you spend your money on, the word with charities is caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
If The New York Times doesn't happen to be investigating your favorite charity at the moment, there are resources you can access that will help you decide whether you're getting the best bang from your donation.
The state Attorney General's Office maintains a searchable online registry of charities registered in New York at www.charitiesnys.com.
The Better Business Bureau operates its Wise Giving Alliance at www.give.org. It provides a ranking of charity performance in various categories, a report on the charities' activities, and updates on any potential changes in their status. For instance, a comment on the Wounded Warrior Project listing dated Feb. 2 states: "In response to public allegations about WWP’s financial and management practices, BBB WGA is corresponding with the organization to determine if there any changes needed to this report.”
And the charity watchdog group, Charity Navigator, provides a searchable website that includes financial information, rankings and donor comments about hundreds of charities.
Continue to be generous. But also be smart.
Make sure your money is helping the people you want it to help in the very best way it can.