It is the holidays and the end of the tax year! How do you give wisely?

As we gather today to give thanks, most of us our probably include our horses somehow. Maybe a special hot bran mash, or extra apples (apple pie for us, extra apples for them, right?).

And as Thanksgiving officially kicks off the winter holidays, so too does it kick off the official season for charitable giving.

If you are looking for an equine charity, there are many worthy ones, including schools, riding programs and college research programs, rescue programs and shelters, and therapeutic programs. With schools and colleges, giving is fairly standardized. However, with other organizations, you may worry; you may wonder if an organization is legitimate. You may wonder how much of your donation actually goes to help horses, or just to line pockets. Where is the accountability? Who regulates these organizations?

The Equiery is bombarded with horror stories every day from readers who feel they have been rooked. The legitimacy of self-proclaimed charities has become a serious issue, and as a result, very good national organizations (such as GuideStar and Charity Navigator) have sprung up to provide a variety of watchdog services and information for the general public.

But these watchdog groups can only do so much for us. As a donor, you must decide if you want your donation to go to physical care for animals, or if an educational group with long-range goals is more what you had in mind for your support.

If you decide that you want your money to go towards actual care for horses, then you need to decide if you want the money to help local animals, or if a national organization is where you want to place your financial backing. Do you want your Maryland dollars to go towards helping horses in New Mexico? There is no shortage of hands-on rescue organizations here in Maryland.

Research any organization that you want to support with a financial contribution. Make sure that the organization’s overall philosophy is in keeping with your own.

Top “Best Practices” of Savvy Donors

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Be Careful Of Sound-Alike Names
: Uninformed donors are easily confused by charities that have strikingly similar names to others. How many of us could tell the difference between an appeal from the Children’s Charity Fund and the Children’s Defense Fund? Their names sound the same, but their performances are vastly different. Would you be surprised to learn that the Children’s Charity Fund is a 0-star charity while the Children’s Defense Fund is a 3-star charity? Informed donors take the time to uncover the difference.
 

EQUIERY TIP: In our world, the most common “sound-alike name” problem is with any organization that utilizes the phrase “humane society.” The phrase “humane society” is used by lobbying organizations as well as hands-on shelters and rescues; it is employed equally by animal rights political activists and official local government animal control offices.

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Confirm 501(c) (3) Status
: Wise donors don’t drop money into canisters at the checkout counter or hand over cash to solicitors outside the supermarket. Situations like these are irresistible to scam artists who wish to take advantage of your goodwill. Smart givers only support groups granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All of the charities evaluated by Charity Navigator meet this basic requirement.
 

EQUIERY TIP: We can not stress enough how important it is to ensure that an organization has a confirmed 501(c)(3) status and is registered with the Maryland’s Attorney General’s Office. In order to accept donations in Maryland, Maryland law requires that an entity (including a bank account set up to help defray medical costs) must be registered with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General. If an entity is not registered, do NOT give them money, as they are breaking the law. There are some entities that can legitimately accept contributions without being a charity, (such as a bank account temporary set up to collect funds to help defray immediate major medical costs for an injured rider), so long as that entity is registered with the Office of the Secretary of State. To find out if an organization to which you wish to contribute is legitimate, visit the Office of the Secretary of State.

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Confirm Commitment To Accountability & Transparency
: Both GuideStar and Charity Navigator have tools for assessing the accountability and transparency of a charity. This data is critical because charities that follow good governance and transparency practices are less likely to engage in unethical or irresponsible activities. So, the risk that such charities would misuse donations is lower than for charities that don’t adopt such practices.
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EQUIERY TIP: In Maryland, equine rescues and horse sanctuaries are required to be licensed by the Maryland Horse Industry Board. If the facility is not licensed but is sheltering horses that are ostensibly rescued or are adopting horses, and said stable is not legally licensed, you can wonder about other ways in which the facility may be noncompliant. Licensed stables can be found on the website for MHIB.

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Obtain Copies Of Its Financial Records
: Savvy donors know that the financial health of a charity is a strong indicator of the charity’s performance. They know that with most programs, the most efficient charities spend 75% or more of their budget on their programs and services and less than 25% on fundraising and administrative fees.  They also understand that a claim of zero fundraising and/or administrative fees is unlikely at best. They understand that a charity’s ability to sustain its programs over time is just as important as its short-term day-to-day spending practices. Savvy donors also seek out charities that are able to grow their revenue at least at the rate of inflation, that continue to invest in their programs and that have some money saved for a rainy day.

EQUIERY TIP: This advice is going to seem counterintuitive to most horse people. They may ask, why give to a horse rescue, equine sanctuary or therapeutic program that already has money? Give to the one that is barely scraping by, that has no money–after all, doesn’t that charity need it more? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps they do not make wise decisions with the donations that do come in. Ask to see their financial records. Even if they have no money and are a mom & pop volunteer operation, any legitimate charity should willingly show you the financial records.

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Review Executive Compensation
: Sophisticated donors realize that charities need to pay their top leaders a competitive salary in order to attract and retain the kind of talent needed to run a multimillion-dollar organization and produce results.

EQUIERY TIP: Paying employees, rather than relying on volunteers, is another area that rubs many local horse people as just wrong. However, as anyone who has ever tried to manage a group of volunteers for just one afternoon knows that volunteers, as a tribe, are notoriously unreliable. It goes along with being a volunteer. Many volunteers understandably consider their time commitment to be based on discretionary time…that time which is not needed for a personal priority (such as work, family, home). If another more critical priority arises, understandably the uncompensated volunteer will redirect his or her said discretionary (i.e., “free”) time. As many rescues have come to learn, when one is trying to cope with rehabilitating horses, it can be critical to have trained, reliable help, and they believe that the organization ultimately does more good by paying for barn help and directing volunteer efforts into other areas. In other words, do not dismiss a charity merely because it has some paid employees.

Nor should you choose a charity simply because all of its labor is volunteer. Look at its business plan to see if it is able to effectively execute its mission.

FROM CHARITY NAVIGATOR: Investigate Program Results
: Although it takes some effort on their part to assess the impact of a charity’s program, donors who are committed to advancing real change believe that it is worth their time. Before they make a contribution, they talk with the charity to learn about its accomplishments, goals and challenges. These donors are prepared to walk away from any charity that is unable or unwilling to participate in this type of conversation.
 

EQUIERY TIP: As we said elsewhere, do not dismiss a charity merely because it has some paid employees, and likewise do not choose a charity simply because all of its labor is volunteer. Look at its business plan to see if it is able to effectively execute its mission. Make sure you are not just underwriting someone else’s inability to pay for their own horses or underwriting someone who claims to be rescuing horses but is really a collector.

Tips for Evaluating Business Plans & Program Results of Equine Rescues and Shelters

In addition to the advice above, which applies to all charities (IRS status, financial disclosure, and the like), here are more tips for specifically evaluating charitable equine rescues and shelters. Does the organization have…

  • A board of directors featuring respected members of the community?
  • Open access to visitors and supporters who want to monitor animal care?
  • Nationally certified principals and/or primary caregivers?
  • Training program for volunteers?
  • Well-defined quarantine areas?
  • Established criteria for deciding between euthanasia and rehabilitation?
  • An established adoption program with post-adoption monitoring?
  • A good relationship with the local animal control office?

Representatives of legitimate equine rescue organizations should likewise be able to answer the following questions:

  • Who are the organization’s advising and practicing veterinarians?
  • Who are the advising and practicing farriers?
  • Does the organization actually find homes for the animals? Will references be required?
  • Does the organization conform to the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ guidelines for equine rescue and retirement facilities? For more information, visit

The time and expense involved in operating an equine shelter are prohibitive. Many start up with heartfelt intentions; few have the savvy to survive. Nonetheless, some do. These legitimate organizations not only provide shelter and care for neglected, abandoned and even the occasionally abused horse, they rehabilitate them and find them good adoptive homes. Often, they also provide instruction or clinics on basic horse care, which helps to break the cycle of neglect due to ignorance.

USEFUL SITES

Guidance on Giving Wisely

Find resources to help you know more about the charity to which you are giving, information about their finances, your rights as a donor, and more.

Maryland Charities Database

Find summary information filed by charitable organizations with the Office of the Secretary of State of Maryland.

GuideStar

GuideStar is NOT a charity evaluator or a watchdog. GuideStar is a 501(c)(3) public charity that collects, organizes, and presents the information about all not-for-profits in an easy-to-understand format while remaining neutral. GuideStar’s mission is to revolutionize philanthropic giving by providing information that advances transparency and enables users to make educated decisions for charitable giving.

GuideStar’s database corrals critical, basic information about every IRS-registered nonprofit organization. It provides as much information as is publicly available about each nonprofit’s mission, legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, and governance.

GuideStar also encourages nonprofits to share information about their organizations openly and completely. GuideStar then combines the information that nonprofits supply with data from several other sources.

GuideStar’s database includes all not-for-profts, not just charities. Enter “horse” and “Maryland” into GuideStar, and you will find 78 search results, from horse show associations to hunts, breed associations to the American Horse Council, to some entities unrelated to horses, or not, in Maryland. Do not assume that sending money to a not-for-profit constitutes a charitable contribution. Not all not-for-profits qualify as charities, so dig deeper. But with this information in hand, you can then move onto other sources focused more specifically on charities.

Charity Navigator

This site evaluates and analyzes charities, and provides tips on charitable giving. Easy to use. Click on subjects by category, such as “animals” or “wildlife conservation,” and then select your state. Eight pop up for Maryland, and only one for just horses,

Avoiding Charity Fraud: For tips from the Federal Trade Commission on avoiding charity fraud.

Report Concerns About a CharityIf you have been contacted by a charity, and things just don’t sound right to you, please report your concerns to the Secretary of State.

National Center for Charitable Statistics
: A national clearinghouse of data on the nonprofit sector in the United States, the site contains resources for nonprofit organizations and charitable donors.

IRS Search for Charities
 The Internal Revenue Service hosts a searchable database of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.

Are you an operating charity?

Have you registered yet with the State of Maryland? If not, click here – it is easy: