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Giving generously -- and sensibly

  • Article by: Kate Parry
  • Star Tribune
  • September 21, 2007 - 1:22 PM

Out of her own grief, Linnell Sathers took the time to contact me last week and raise a very important point on behalf of the generous Minnesotans contributing funds for victims of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and the southeastern Minnesota floods.

Her son, Scott Sathers, 29, was the 12th victim recovered in the bridge collapse. "I believe that the majority of people that contribute to a disaster fund don't realize how the donation is really used or how the distribution is determined," she wrote.

Sather urged the newspaper to elaborate on that in stories about contributions to disaster-recovery funds. She's absolutely right about the role newspapers need to play in getting the contributing public as much information as possible about what their money is buying and how decisions are being made.

Also heartily agreeing is Rich Cowles, executive director of the Minnesota Charities Review Council, which seeks accountability from charities and tries to provide Minnesotans with sound information on charities.

"Give with your heart and your head," Cowles said. That's especially important when news coverage of disasters in our midst rouses strong feelings of wanting to help.

This is not an issue confined to these most recent tragedies. Minnesotans are a routinely giving people. This time of year, nearly every weekend brings an aerobic parade of thousands of walkers, runners or bicyclists to Summit Avenue or the River Road in St. Paul or around the lakes in Minneapolis to enjoy the outdoors while raising money for good causes.

There are also people attempting to harvest that giving -- often for good, but occasionally for suspect reasons. Each week, my e-mail fills up with pitches from individuals and businesses holding fundraisers and looking for publicity.

Just last week I heard from a bar owner holding a fundraising night to aid the Salvation Army. A survivor of lung disease sent information on a recent run/walk at Lake Calhoun. A man plans a canoe trip across the Boundary Waters to raise money for research on environmental causes of cancer. A strip club in Inver Grove Heights held a car wash fundraiser to raise money for wounded veterans. A no-kill animal shelter planned a charity dog fashion show.

My answer to them is unsatisfying: There isn't a guaranteed spot to publish information on these events because there just isn't enough room.

The online newspaper offers more space for posting notices. StarTribune.com Editor Will Tacy is planning to expand a calendar section on the Star Tribune's community journalism website, Buzz.mn.

Like most editors, Tacy is wary that while he's giving readers a way to publish useful information for other readers, he's also risking providing a forum for charity scam artists. "How responsible are we for the content of these postings?" he asked. It's a reasonable concern of editors that it would be nearly impossible to police the myriad fundraisers operating in the metro area.

Charitable giving here is robust and grows year to year -- it was up 9 percent in 2004 as Minnesotans whipped out their checkbooks and gave away $4.9 billion, according to the Minnesota Council on Foundations' 2006 report on giving in the state (the 2004 data is the most recent available).

The magnitude of this statewide generosity begs for a more organized approach by the newspaper to provide sound information on the best of charitable opportunities and consumer information on how to determine risks of giving.

The newspaper should wrestle with a better way to address these issues for readers. Recreational charity events are clearly a part of local culture passionately embraced by thousands of readers. The current approach to letting readers know what's coming up or covering the actual events is hit or miss.

It would serve readers far better if the newspaper published an annual guide to the major runs, walks and rides, the way it publishes a camp guide for parents each spring. Give fundraisers a deadline by which to submit their information. To make sure fundraisers are open about how the money will be spent, publish only those that have current information on file with Minnesota's Charities Review Council. Even small nonprofits can do that for a very small fee.

For fundraising efforts that happen on the fly, as they have for the bridge disaster and the floods, it's even more important for the newspaper to screen pitches for money and make sure the charity is open and accountable.

Online, it's worth adding a link from those community calendars to the Charities Review Council website so consumers can at least make their own checks on charities.

Consumers can also check to see if a charity has registered with the state attorney general's office, which is required of all but the tiniest fundraisers, with the exception of those connected to religious congregations, Cowles said.

Cowles had some advice useful to both reporters and consumers. Ask questions about exactly how the money will be used. "Is the answer precise, or is it meant to appeal to the emotions?" he asked.

Press for a precise answer, then give with confidence. Cowles hopes Minnesotans remember that "we're all sort of driven by what's on page one today. Eventually, those stories go to page two. But these families have needs over the long term."

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