Be careful choosing a charity this holiday

ENGLEWOOD — The holidays are a special time of year for giving, but people must be diligent when they contribute to a charitable cause, local experts say.

People sometimes see the name of a charity and think they’re going to do something for a certain cause when in fact, the charity doesn’t do what its name implies, says Dean Hanewinckel, an Englewood attorney who specializes in estate planning, real estate and business law.

Much of the money in some charities may be tied to administrative costs, staffing and marketing costs, Hanewinckel said. Very little may go to the actual cause.

“I know there are a lot of good charities out there, but there are also some that are not good,” said Esther Bird, marketing and event coordinator of the United Way of South Sarasota County.

Every agency has some kind of expense, she said.

“Sometimes when people give, say $100 … in reality, it could be as small as $10 out of the $100 that goes where they want it to go,” she said.

Bird encourages people to research the organization they’re considering donating to through its finances.

“Anytime someone asks to see our finances, we provide that,” Bird said. “We have nothing to hide. We are handling the money that’s being donated to the United Way very efficiently so that there’s very little expense that has come out of the donation.”

Some third party nonprofit organizations state that a portion or all of their proceeds will go to a major organization like the American Red Cross or the United Way.

“You see them every once in a while,” Hanewinckel said. “Depending on the type of charity they are, they may or may not be worthwhile. I think in most cases, better off just giving directly to (the major) organizations and not giving through this conduit.”

Hanewinckel said there are some notable exceptions. For example, Gulf Coast Community Foundation provides a conduit-like service for other charities.

“They can help manage your money for you that you’re donating to charity and make your gifts on a regular basis or do some research for how you want to make those gifts for you,” Hanewinckel said.

While there may be some companies that misrepresent themselves, some are more egregious than others.

Ken Kleinlein is a former detective with the NYPD Special Fraud Squad who currently works with the Charlotte and Sarasota County Sheriff Offices as a frauds and crime consultant. Fraudulent charities increase activity 15 to 30 percent during the holidays, Kleinlein said.

“Victims are frequent among the predominant elderly community,” Kleinlein said. “Thieves contact each other and place marks on a ‘sucker list.’ They’ll pocket the donations themselves rather than what is intended.”

If you have any doubt on where your money is going, call the official organization directly, Kleinlein said.

Go to and type the name of the charity.

“It will tell you first of all whether they’re legitimate and it gives you all the information about them,” Hanewinckel said. “All of those legitimate charities have to file tax returns and different reports. It’s a good, quick-and-easy way to find out how efficient and how legitimate different charities are.”


About Tom

Tom Chang is a freelance journalist with a background in multimedia journalism and web publishing. He is currently pursuing his Masters in Journalism and Media Studies from the University of South Florida St.Petersburg. He graduated in 2004 with a Bachelors Degree in Mass Communications at USF Tampa. Tom's interests include a little bit of everything from entertainment to sports. He also wishes to delve into creative writing writing sci-fi/fantasy stories. Tom was recently the Online Editor for USF St. Petersburg's the Crow's Nest, he joined the staff in January 2010 where he started freelance writing, photographing, copy editing and later became a staff writer. Tom’s freelance experience in journalism amassed a wide range of companies including Creative Loafing, The Focus Magazine, Lutz News,, and Tampa Tribune.
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