No question, many charities at this time of year would prefer cash donations that they could use wherever the dollars are most needed. But what if you're short on cash?
You can still do good, and possibly get a tax deduction, by making other types of donations. Nonprofits say they welcome noncash gifts.
But what's desperately needed by one charity is a burden to another. And you're not doing any charity a favor by donating threadbare underwear, old boxsprings, worn tires, rusted water heaters or outdated computers laden with toxic materials. Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake, for instance, spends about $500,000 a year getting rid of unusable donations. "$500,000 would serve a lot of people," said Lisa Rusyniak, vice president of marketing and development.
So before becoming a donor, do a little philanthropic homework to find the place where your gift will do the most good. Maryland Nonprofits makes this easier by listing online more than 1,500 of its member organizations at www.marylandnonprofits.org. You can search for a nonprofit based on location or activities, ranging from the arts and civil rights to medical research and shelter.
Once you've narrowed your search, contact the nonprofits to find out what they can use. Some charities publish wish lists, detailing items they want.
"What you have to give away may not help them," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.
For example, the Children's Theater Association would prefer you keep your old prom and wedding dresses in the back of the closet. But if you happen to own a building suitable for a theater and want to give it away, you would be fulfilling the Baltimore County nonprofit's top wish this year - a new home. "That would be a true angel," said Kevin Daly, executive director.
Other groups need the very basics.
Winter clothes, shoes and boots for men and women are in demand by the Health Education Resource Organization in Baltimore, which helps those affected by HIV or AIDS, some of whom are homeless. "Clothes are our biggest thing. We know it will be a very cold winter," said Luke Rivera, HERO's volunteer coordinator.
HERO also could use a spare washing machine. "We only have two washing machines and over 200 clients," Rivera said.
The American Red Cross of Central Maryland, on the other hand, can't use clothing. It wants your blood.
"A lot of people don't realize how distinctive blood is. There's no such thing as artificial blood," said Barbara Mason, director of financial development. The Central Maryland office, which also serves southern Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia, needs more than 1,000 pints a day.
Here are some other non-cash gifts that nonprofits say they could use:
The gift of time. Sprechen SieDeutsch? Or Polish? Russian? Czech? French? The Red Cross in Baltimore can use volunteers with skills in languages or computer research to help in its Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Center.
Do you have a knack for business? Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake and Baltimore Station, which offers residential centers for homeless men in drug addiction recovery, say they can use volunteers with business experience to teach clients job skills.
Maybe you have a soft spot for animals. The Maryland SPCA of Baltimore needs people to spend time with animals, walking and training dogs, playing with cats so they remain used to human contact, or showing animals to prospective adopters. "It's fun for volunteers and great for animals," said Aileen Gabbey, SPCA executive director.
Or, make an even bigger time commitment and adopt an animal.
You don't have to volunteer alone, either. Baltimore Station's board president, Allison Barlow, suggests that a half-dozen friends or co-workers can get together to cook a meal and eat with clients. "Recovering from homelessness means reconnecting to the community. It's a really great experience for everybody," Barlow said.
If you use your car while volunteering, you can deduct your mileage - 14 cents per mile - plus any tolls and parking fees on your federal tax return. You can't write off the value of your time, though, or vacation travel, even if you do a little a charity work when not on the beach.
"If you help at the SPCA in Fort Lauderdale in January, there might be some questions," said Mark Luscombe, a principal with CCH Inc., a tax information provider in Illinois.
Food, clothing and other basics. Many groups like to receive canned goods and other items with long shelf lives because perishable food is hard to store. But there's just so much creamed corn someone can eat.
"We certainly don't want 100 cans of artichoke hearts. We like variety," said Teresa Ernst, special events manager with the Maryland Food Bank, which provides food for hundreds of pantries, soup kitchens and emergency shelters. Variety, said Ernst, includes canned fruit and vegetables, pasta and rice, and high-protein items such as macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and tuna fish.
But the reluctance to take perishables isn't universal. Frozen turkeys are welcome at the Food Bank and Salvation Army.
"Think of items you have on your table during the holidays. Those traditional items are the best to give," said Lafeea Watson, director of public relations and marketing at the Salvation Army in Baltimore.
You know all those complimentary miniature shampoos and toiletries you tuck into your luggage before checking out of a hotel? Those would come in handy at Chrysalis House in Crownsville, a women's residential treatment center for substance abuse. Other basics needed year round include vitamins, stationary, stamps, bed sheets and baby supplies.
If you're donating goods, you may be able to deduct the fair market value of items on your federal tax return. If your donation is worth $250 or more, you'll need a written acknowledgement from the charity. Donate property worth more than $5,000, and you'll need an appraisal.
Donate an auto. Many cars donated to charities are quickly sold at auction. But if you want your car to be put to use by the charity, consider Vehicles for Change in Elkridge. The nonprofit fixes up cars and sells them with a 6-month warranty for $700 to $950 to low-income individuals who need transportation for work.
"We typically take anything newer than 1992, unless it's in really good running condition," says Martin Schwartz, president. "We can't take someone's car that's been sitting in the back yard for a year and trees growing in it."
The nonprofit turns down about 60 percent of the car offers it gets.
Donating a car that will actually be used, rather than sold, has a potentially important tax advantage: It will assure that the donor can deduct the fair market value of the vehicle. Congress - and the IRS - are cracking down on inflated car deductions, and starting next year, if the deduction will be more than $500, a donor will be limited to whatever the nonprofit gets if the auto is immediately sold. But Schwartz said Vehicles for Change donors should still be able to deduct fair market value, although he's waiting for clarification from the Treasury Department.
Got a boat? The Hospice of the Chesapeake, catering to terminally ill individuals and their families in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, won't take cars, but it will accept boats. Volunteers sell the boats and turn over the proceeds to the Annapolis-based hospice. (The same new tax rules regarding car deductions apply to boats and airplanes.)
Fund-raisers. You may not have much money, but your friends, co-workers and employer may. You can tap into these resources by launching a clothing or food drive at, say, work and delivering goods to a charity.
Gilly Babb, who runs a pre-school in Baltimore, held a fund-raiser recently in her home for Teach for America, a program that places teachers in rural and city schools.
Knowing the city school system could use supplies, Babb invited women to dinner at her home, with the only request that each diner bring an item for the classroom. More than 40 women attended, and Babb figures she raised more than $500 in supplies.
To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Choosing a charity
Finding a charity that deserves your support requires a little research.
"Don't assume you know what the organization does based on the name," said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.
You can learn more about nonprofits and their operations by visiting their Web sites.
Check the Wise Giving Alliance's site at www. give.org, which reports on national charities and whether they meet the alliance's standards.
Most states, including Maryland, require charities soliciting donations to register. In Maryland, you can review charities' filings online at www.sos. state.md.us.
Donors can also check out an organization's background and finances at www.guidestar.org.
- Eileen Ambrose