Jane Anlauf thought she was helping a worthy cause. When an organization called the Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation (ASDF) called the 81-year-old Minnetonka woman in May, she agreed to solicit contributions from her friends and neighbors on their behalf.

But if the organization's IRS filing for 2009 is any indication, the fruits of her labor will mainly be used to pay for marketing material and worker wages at two national telemarketing call centers.

Anlauf received glossy literature and donation forms from the tax-exempt charity. She used her own stamps to send the material to her friends. She collected checks and mailed them in.

Her first indication that something might be amiss was when she called the Autism Society of Minnesota seeking the ASDF's address so she could forward a neighbor's late check. She was surprised to be told they had received a number of complaints about ASDF.

Based on the reports received so far, "we're not aware that any [ASDF] dollars are going to people living with autism," according to spokesperson Shannon Andreson. "We have been telling people to contact the attorney general's office.

The ASDF has been a thorn in the side of the Autism Society of America as well. According to society president Scott Badesch, telemarketers for ASDF have been falsely telling potential donors that they are either associated with the society or that the society endorses their work. The society has sent them two cease-and-desist orders.

"We don't do any soliciting over the phone," Badesch said. Nor does the Minnesota chapter, according to Andreson.

ASDF did not return several calls from Whistleblower.

The charitable group pulled in $1.2 million in 2009, according to its IRS filing, but the charity listed a negative balance of $29,679 at the end of the year. It listed three employees and 89,128 "volunteers," or people like Anlauf.

The group hired two companies to raise funds for ASDF in 2009, but neither did much to help the cause. Ohio-based Infocision kept all $876,832 it raised, while Missouri-based Precision Performance Marketing kept all but $37,842 of the $203,227 it raised.

The tax form reveals the group held no "structured, formal meetings" in 2009. It spent $313,751 on "materials and fulfillment" and $120,241 on postage.

So if you want to donate or volunteer your time to a worthy charity, how can you make an informed decision about giving?

First, check to see if the organization has charitable status with the IRS at tinyurl.com/6qdqrh. You may only take tax deductions on donations made to qualified charities.

Next, check to see if they are allowed to solicit donations from Minnesota residents. Larger charities and those using professional fundraisers must register with the attorney general. See the list at tinyurl.com/4y9sbfy or call 651-296-3353.

Even if a charity is qualified, it may spend too much on administration and fundraising. According to the St. Paul-based Charities Review Council, at least 65 percent of revenue should be used to directly support programming. Ask the charity about its finances and double check what it tells you by visiting charitynavigator.org or smartgivers.org. For a look at the charity's 990 tax form, go to www.guidestar.org.