Choose wisely Featured

10:48am EDT August 26, 2003
Every day, John Ludwig, CEO of Park Companies, gets a phone call from a charity or nonprofit organization asking for a donation. Some he gives to. Others he doesn't.

Few companies have the budget to contribute to every needy group trying to raise funds, so it's important to set firm guidelines for your charity dollars.

"We try to stay close to our community," says Ludwig, whose company owns and operates Park Honda, Park Acura and Park Mazda in Green. "We don't do things that are fund-raisers by outside corporations because all the money does not go directly toward the cause. All the money has to go toward the cause."

In April, Park Companies donated $10,000, and became the first sponsor in a new corporate campaign for the Humane Society of Greater Akron. The goal of the campaign is to raise at least $100,000 of the Human Society's $800,000 annual budget.

In return, Park Companies was recognized for its sponsorship at three major humane society events in the Akron-Canton area; the final event is to take place this month.

"I'll share the spotlight with anyone," Ludwig says. "They need it. They want to raise $100,000 and they want to build a new facility. I'd like to see everyone get on board. They don't have to give what we did, but just give something."

Ludwig continues, "We like to put our promotional dollars to support the community and we budget so much a year for that. It's not whoever gets there first. We have the things we do every year and things we just won't do."

Regardless of how you choose to spend your philanthropic dollars, here are some charitable giving basics from the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance.

* Do not give cash; always make contributions by check, and make your check payable to the charity, not to the individual collecting the donation.

* Keep records of your donations (receipts, canceled checks and bank statements) so you can document your charitable giving at tax time. Although the value of your time as a volunteer is not deductible, out-of-pocket expenses (including transportation costs) directly related to your volunteer service to a charity are deductible.

* Don't be fooled by names that look impressive or that closely resemble the name of a well-known organization.

* Check out the organization with the local charity registration office (usually a division of the state attorney general's office) and with your Better Business Bureau.

* Ask if your contribution is tax-deductible. Contributions to tax-exempt organizations are not always tax deductible. Tax exempt simply means the organization doesn't have to pay taxes. Tax deductible means the donor can deduct contributions to the organization on his or her federal income tax return.

The Internal Revenue Code defines more than 20 categories of tax exempt organizations, but contributions to only a few of these are also tax deductible. Principal among tax deductible groups is the 501(c) (3) category, broadly termed "charitable" organizations. How to reach: Park Companies, (330) 645-7275 or www.parkmazdaakron.com; Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, www.give.org


Keep it simple

Altria Corp., parent company of Kraft Foods and Phillip Morris, donated more than $138 million in grants last year to causes such as hunger, domestic violence, the environment, AIDS and the arts.

With that kind of budget, Altria used to receive thousands of requests from organizations that didn't fit with the company's charitable criteria.

So, about two years ago, Altria posted its entire grant-awarding process on its corporate Web site. Now, organizations can see what areas Altria funds and what grants are available, and send the Request For Proposal online.

"Our strategy has shifted from being a grantor that accepts proposals randomly to being a grantor that does its funding through these RFPs," says John Barnes, Altria Corp.'s manager of contributions.

Here are a few of the benefits of converting all your charitable paperwork to online.

Compare

Instead of evaluating grants as they came in, Altria can compare in some cases more than 200 at once.

"If those 200 came in throughout the year, they wouldn't have been evaluated against each other to see which were the strongest programs," Barnes says.

Reach

When the grant process was hard copy, the only people who could apply were those who were mailed proposals.

"Now, anybody can go on the Web site," Barnes says. "Or anybody can go on a search engine to look for AIDS funding, find our Web site and apply."

Efficiency

The electronic RFPs save Altria valuable time internally because data can be downloaded directly to its RFP database, then e-mailed to its judges.