You know it's a December evening when your last three phone calls were from charities seeking donations, and you haven't even begun dessert.
Marylanders enjoy the distinction of being ranked among the nation's most generous givers. This time of year that means potential donors also attract a lot of solicitors with tenuous, if any, links to good causes.
"You go where the money is, and we're talking significant dollars," said Secretary of State John T. Willis.
Of the $2 billion Marylanders give each year, at least $50 million is going to organizations that raise money under false pretenses, are fraudulent or are grossly inefficient, he said.
Many are legally registered. But since a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, states have no authority to limit how much money is spent on administration or fund raising. Some get away with spending little or nothing on their stated mission.
Early this month, for instance, the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police, which represents all city police officers, objected when a rival union called the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) began selling $25 tickets for a children's Christmas party.
FOP President Gary McLhinney said he stumbled across the IUPA campaign by accident while waiting for a takeout order at a downtown restaurant.
"The guy in front of me said to the cashier, 'I'm here to pick up the check for the police union,' " McLhinney said. "That set some bells off. I said, 'You don't represent us.' "
McLhinney said the restaurant revoked its pledge after learning that the group was not affiliated with Baltimore police. The salesman left without a check, McLhinney said.
The International Union of Police Associations has no locals in Baltimore City or Baltimore County, although it has several locals in the state. The group's spokesman, Rich Roberts, said it would be a violation of IUPA policy for salespeople to imply they were acting on behalf of Baltimore police. But he said no one had produced evidence of such calls.
"If that happened, I would like to know about it," he said. "More than once, we've had folks fired for departing from the script."
McLhinney insists it is a pattern: "I've talked to too many people who've gotten calls asking for money for 'our police.' It's misleading."
Although the state received some inquiries about the international union about the same time, no one filed a complaint. The group, which is based in Alexandria, Va., is registered with the state. Last year, it raised nearly $5 million, spending $3.6 million of it on telemarketing services, according to tax records. The 58 percent spent on administrative and fund raising far exceeds the 25 percent the state considers valid.
The state's charity division, which handles complaints and inquiries, is receiving dozens of calls a week, about triple the usual number. "Lately, the calls have been overwhelming," said Rick Morris, an investigator in the division. "Most people just want to make sure the money is going to where they're told."
Under the 1984 Supreme Court decision, the state cannot require charities to spend so much as a cent toward their stated mission, be it feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless.
State officials urge consumers to ask solicitors questions about the organization and who the money will benefit. Be cautious if an organization refuses to send written material or financial information, offers to send a courier to pick up a contribution, or sends a statement indicating a payment due for a contribution you did not pledge.
By calling the charity division, you can learn whether an organization is among the 3,400 registered charities in Maryland, and how much of each dollar goes to the cause (be wary if it is less than 75 percent).
By visiting the secretary of state's office, you can review the charity's complete file. It includes the tax forms or comparable documents required for nonprofit organizations, and some files contain records of previous complaints. The file also will show whether the charity hires professional solicitors to drum up contributions, or if it pays salaries to its officers.
Beginning next month, the state hopes to add brief profiles of each registered charity to the department's Web page, which was set up last year. With that addition, consumers will be able to learn basic information about any registered charity.
Willis said he expects to present the General Assembly with a list of the state's 100 best and 100 worst charitable organizations before the session ends.
To inquire about a charity, call 974-5534. The secretary of state's Web page is: http: //www.gov/ state.md.us/sos/charity/html/ cod.html.
Pub Date: 12/24/96