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Do you know where your money goes when giving to charities?

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CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) -

You think you're giving your money to a good cause, but do your donations really go to help those in need?

Maybe not. We looked into how charities spend your dollars and how to find out if you're money is really going to help the people in our communities who struggle the most.

"It's come from having nothing and no hope to having a hand up and being blessed," said Paul Aydelott.

For Aydelott, his wife and their two children, he says they have their own hard work, Habitat for Humanity and the local United Way chapter, to thank for what they call a dream come true.

"If it wasn't for them we would not be here," said Paul Aydelott.

"We are very thankful to know there are people out there that still care," said Patricia Aydelott, his wife.

They will move in just in time for Christmas.

"We are so excited," said Lewis Aydelott, their son, as he described how he would paint his new room at their house in Cape Girardeau.

His sister can't believe it either.

"We will have a pantry!" said Kelsey Aydelott. "We will get our house for Christmas!"

As Executive Director of the Southeast Missouri Chapter of the United Way, it's a story that warms Nancy Jernigan's heart.

"It's important for people to know their money stays local," said Jernigan. "Are we going to save the world? Maybe not. Are we going to save Cape Girardeau and Scott City and Jackson and our area? I hope so!"

Jernigan says Habitat for Humanity is one of 30 plus organizations your money can go to when you donate to the United Way chapter.

She says 85 percent of public donations go directly to help families like the Aydelott's. Fifteen-percent goes to fundraising and operating expenses.

"One thing about charities people need to understand and people should always ask what is your overhead," said Jernigan.

She feels 15 percent is low, compared to our investigation through websites like Charity Navigator, where we discovered some charities around the country spend as much as 60 percent or more of your dollars on salaries and other costs.

 According to the site, the National Veterans Services Fund spends 18 percent of money coming in on services to the public. Meanwhile, The American Red Cross spends 90 percent.

Sara Gerau of the Red Cross of Southeast Missouri region says more current numbers show the non-profits overhead is even lower. "For every dollar donated 92cents goes to client assistance," said Gerau.

We contacted headquarters for the National Veterans Services Fund for comment, but representatives have not responded at this time.

Experts and analysts say overhead costs and factoring in salaries and program cost, as well as fundraising can be tricky and complicated. So before you make a judgment, the best thing to do is go to the charity and ask a lot of questions. 

"I would tell a donor if they're looking somebody and ask questions," said Jernigan. "What percent of my dollars is actually going to services and how do you operate?"

Jernigan says the local United Way works hard to fund those 30 agencies and more than 50 programs with a staff of only three full time employees and one part-time worker.

"It is a difficult time for all non-profits as it is just a difficult time economically for everyone," said Jernigan.

She acknowledges some people feel even 15 percent overhead is too much. She says they make sure their programs to help families really are making a difference by tracking poverty, health and literacy rates; and, keeping all United Way financial records like audits and taxes open to the public.

"It is wide open anything anybody wants to look at we are happy to show and explain," she said.

Most experts say good charities usually have less than 25 percent overhead. 

 Meanwhile the Aydelott family says they are proof when you give you lives change. 

"It is amazing to be standing here knowing we have been blessed with such a great opportunity to be homeowners thanks to the United Way and Habitat for Humanity," said Paul Aydelott. "They have expedited the blessing."

"I just can't believe it," said Patricia Aydelott. "To be in here with the warmth, to be in here for Christmas with warm hot chocolate and to see them waking up in the morning that's a mothers dream." 

According to Jernigan, large corporate donations actually cover their total overhead so 100 percent of employee and public donations from payroll deduction programs actual go to help local people and programs for them.

Meanwhile we also contacted locally run charities like Room for One More Child. They help orphans find homes by lowering the cost of adoption.

"We have no overhead," said Shari Stroup. "The office is in my home. The staff is all-volunteer. We have an anonymous donor that pays for office supplies and all money donated is given away.

[To learn more]

Meanwhile Michelle Outman of H.O.W.? Jewelry said her teams works to support programs for orphans and widows worldwide with only 5 percent overhead.

"Our ministry is blessed," said Outman. "We have only one paid employee our Kenya coordinator. We have a silent donor that pays our mortgage, utility bill, water bill, phone bill and all of our start up cost."

H.O.W.? provides jobs for 30 widows living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, Africa.

[For more information on H.O.W.? Jewelry]

"We are blessed to be able to give more than 95 cents from every dollar we raise," said Outman. 
"One hundred percent of all donations go back to improve the quality of life of women/widows and children living in extreme poverty. That means over 95 percent of our profit directly benefits widows and orphans worldwide."

The National Veterans Services Fund, Inc. released the following statement.

"We are one small office in Connecticut. We have 2 full-time employees and 1 part-time employee. We provide assistance to veterans and their families throughout the United States.

We outsource our fundraising in order to maintain the focus of the office on providing the various services for the veterans and families who come to us. The funds raised by our professional, outsourced fundraisers provide us the means to accomplish our mission. A small percentage of something is better than 100% of nothing. We do not have the resources, staff or expertise to conduct fundraising on our own. We rely upon professionals who hold us free from risk of loss and have a proven record. Donations received online or sent to us directly are put to immediate use in pursuit of our mission…helping veterans in need.

We spend every day providing different types of assistance for veterans and their families on a case-by-case basis. For example, we have purchased wheelchairs, scooters, ramps and other assistive technology; we have paid utility bills and deposits for veterans and their families in danger of homelessness; we have provided gift cards for family support; we've bought snow tires, dentures, and provided temporary housing for veterans in dire straits; we've directed veterans to service officers to help them navigate the VA system and obtain the benefits to which they are entitled. As I said, this is a sample of what we have done, and continue to do on a case-by-case basis for veterans and their families. You may find more examples and testimonials on our website, www.nvsf.org

To blame a charity for the price charged by our fundraisers is like blaming a driver for the price of gas. I suppose that a driver could make his own gas from donated crude oil, and have a staff of volunteers to help refine it, and more volunteers to transport it to volunteer-run gas stations, but it probably wouldn't work. The fundraisers have the means to reach out to many people, asking them for very small donations. Yes, it is not a perfect system for us, but we are trying to improve."

For more information to help you track your dollars, go to:

American Red Cross

Charity Navigator

United Way of Southeast Missouri

Generous Giving

Making Charity Choices

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