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Charity


I attended two colleges. My undergraduate degree was earned at a university that is considered both private and public; it has a private charter and obtains a good portion of its funding from the private sector, but it does receive some state assistance and was a land-grant university. Years after completing my bachelor’s degree, I received my master’s degree from a for-profit university, and I’ve discussed my experience there in great detail on Consumerism Commentary.

Once my net worth was on its path towards growth every month, and particularly when my income through business ownership was beyond my expectations, I began thinking more seriously about my approach to charity. Outside of Consumerism Commentary, I’ve always been involved with arts and education, and that’s where I initially decided to focus most of my charitable attention.

Over the course of the growth of Consumerism Commentary as a business, I turned some of the site’s profit into charity on behalf of the business itself and towards goals that were in line with the business’s own mission. When DonorsChoose.org, a site that helps people raise money for educational projects, was new, I promoted a financial literacy challenge.

In following years, I organized a charitable matching program to raise money for various causes. Readers could contribute to any charity they like, and if they sent a receipt to me, I would match their contribution with one from Consumerism Commentary to a charity I selected each year. One year it was the World Food Programme, another year the choice was Médecins Sans Frontières, both in response to timely world events.

I worked for a non-profit arts education organization after graduating college, as faithful Consumerism Commentary readers may know, so I designated that organization as the recipient of some of my personal charitable contributions. With the help of Fidelity, I created a charitable gift fund which allowed me to make it easy to donate money to organizations whose missions I felt passionate about, including that non-profit and my undergraduate alma mater.

Offering charity to a university is a strange concept. Most colleges are not hurting for money. And when I recently read a short article by Slate’s Matthew Yglesias, I considered changing my entire approach. Matthew attended an elite private high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Harvard University. In his experience, higher education does not need any help from people like me — those earning a healthy living and having the opportunity to make occasional gifts to their colleges.

In 2012, Harvard University’s endowment fund totaled $30 billion. My $1,000, $10,000, or even $100,000, won’t make that much of a difference to that particular university in the grand scheme of things, and it’s understandable that Matthew Yglesias wants to bring this to the attention of would-be donors. My own undergraduate university has an endowment fund valued at just above $1 billion, which is still a healthy value.

But the way I made my relatively small contributions matter was by designation the funds to be used for something specific. This ensured that my money was not necessarily contributing to the excesses in administration or cosmetic changes to campus. With every donation, I targeted the growth of programs within my academic interests. Unlike Harvard or another elite university, I knew that the funds, small as they were, would go beyond the students from financially comfortable families and help those with a variety of financial conditions.

Of course, I do recognize that I’m not helping the impoverished when I donate anything to my university. Although my classmates came from diverse backgrounds, it’s not as diverse as a community college. And if I wanted to help those who most needed financial assistance, I’d need to stay away from secondary education completely.

The idea Matthew Yglesias offered, suggesting charitable money would be better spent by giving it to a “homeless person on the street,” is out of the question — there’s no guarantee that any particular homeless person would be able to use random donations to improve his or her situation. At least with the donation to my university, I’m confident that the money I offered must be used towards my designation — that’s a legal requirement.

Tomorrow, I will be having lunch with a director of development from my undergraduate alma mater. We plan to discuss the options for a larger charitable contribution, although I’m still waiting to hear back from my tax accountant who will answer some questions about tax effectiveness. With the changes to my income situation over the past few years and moving forward, I want to make sure that I make the best choices from a tax perspective in terms of timing.

Through the meeting with the director of development, I hope to gain a better understanding of my choices for giving and how I can make an impact both on my areas of passion, as diverse as they are, and my desire to benefit students who might not have certain opportunities available to them because of financial need. Despite my disagreement with the article published in Slate, it raised a few concerns that I want to address with my charitable plan.

Do you donate money to your university?

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I’m a sympathetic person. I really am, and sometimes my sympathy has aided me in making bad choices.

But I have no patience for people who pretend to be in some kind of destitute condition, a performance entirely possible through the anonymity on the internet, and beg for money. It’s a strategy — a scam — that works, unfortunately. If you have a nice story to tell, no matter if it’s true, thousands of people will be attracted to that story. If you ask for it, people will send you money out of kindness.

Today is Giving Tuesday, so it’s an opportunity to look at a story that has been in the news recently related to a charitable scam.

Recently, Linda Walther Tirado, also known online as KillerMartinis, concocted and published a short story about living on poverty. In reality, Linda may have had some financial struggles, or at least might have been living on a low income, but allegedly not due to poverty or her upbringing. Her story was thoroughly debunked by a researcher who found other conflicting details about this person’s identity, but Linda’s damage, in the form of attracting kind readers to offer financial help, was done.

From Houston Press:

The real Linda owns a home, thanks to some pretty generous parents… She’s married to a Marine, has met President Obama while interning for a politician…, and has plenty of time to visit Las Vegas on vacation. And blog about her privileged life on WordPress… She speaks both German and Dutch, and has a well-rounded political blog that ended in 2011. It’s also a blog where she quite plainly references being paid to win races.

Her story, which the author and other observers claim has “gone viral” — I didn’t hear about it until the debunking also went viral — generated a generous outpouring of contributions that are still coming in. Her GoFundMe page has raised over $62,000 to help this cyberbeggar allegedly pay for dental bills, but she intends to use the money for other purposes: to shop a book around to publishers, to quit her day job, and to give some away. (GoFundMe is a website that allows individuals raise money, usually for small start-up businesses or projects.)

My opinion on the matter is clear: if you lie as Linda allegedly has, and you use that lie to manipulate sympathetic people to part with their money, you are a scammer. And scammer is putting it nicely. (This is also why I don’t like marketers.)

If the $62,000 is an accumulation of mostly small donations like $5 or $10, most contributors did not risk much. Looking through the list of recent donations via the author’s GoFundMe website, most seem to be $10, with others going as high as $50. On an individual level, a small donation doesn’t look so bad; it’s not much different than when you give a few dollars to someone sitting on the street with a cardboard sign. The more entertaining or clever the sign, the more likely it is that a passerby will hand over a five dollar bill.

You don’t know who this person is. You’d like to think he or she will use your money to buy a sandwich or start collecting for some new business clothes so he or she can look appropriate at a job. For $5, it doesn’t hurt your wallet and you can rid yourself of that guilty feeling you get when a homeless person looks you in the eye. It’s a low risk donation. If it turns out to be a scam, you’ve only wasted $5.

Those who contributed to her collection of more than $62,000 are adults. They are free to make their own decisions about how to spend and donate their money. You can only make good decisions when you have all of the information available to you. People who donated believed the story they were told about the author’s live in poverty.

Karyn Bosnak was the first majorly successful cyberbeggar. But at least with the writing on her website, SaveKaryn, the stories are believed to be true. Karyn SaveKaryn, spent more than she was earning through shopping and fully admitted to her unfettered credit card use. She offered details on the consumer debt she acquired and asked her website’s followers to contribute money to help her pay off her credit card debt. After raising the $20,000 she needed to pay off her debt, she stopped asking for donations.

Why would people help someone whose financial situation was a result of his or her own bad choices? Sympathy and compassion. It’s good to know these are still valued personality traits. Because Karyn’s approach to cyberbegging worked, perhaps just being truthful about your situation will be just as effective as lying if you write well and are able to attract attention.

Although she was truthful about her problem, I didn’t like SaveKaryn’s financial begging from the beginning. There were much more worthy causes for charity than a girl with a good income and a spending problem. Collecting donations wasn’t going to solve a shopaholic’s problem, just enable her to continue to make poor money management choices.

But pretending to be someone you’re not in order to gain sympathy is unethical. It’s manipulative. With Karyn, donors knew they were giving money to someone who didn’t need help. In Linda Walther Tirado’s case, donors were conned into believing their donations were going to a case worthy of charitable contributions. Contributors believed they were helping someone who was living in poverty through little fault of her own.

So while on an individual level, a $20 donation might not hurt the uninformed donor. If the $20 ends up not helping someone raise herself out of poverty, the harm is minor. But collectively, the idea that someone can earn a living by asking for small donations based on a fabricated story encourages others to do the same. Every small donation legitimizes cyberbegging. Every $5, $10, or $50 contribution helps scammers believe that it’s not a problem to use lies to con the public.

Here at Consumerism Commentary, Naked With Cash has featured people in worse financial condition that the real Linda Walther Tirado. Not once have they written — even implied — that they would accept financial contributions from readers to help improve their situation. That would just be unfathomable to me, and I wouldn’t allow Consumerism Commentary to become a vehicle for such activity.

No one is required to give charity only to the needy. I used to work for a non-profit organization whose programs did benefit young people in low socio-economic status neighborhoods, but the vast majority of students who benefited from the programs were comfortably situated in the middle class. This wasn’t a charity for the poor, but an educational program that supported what students might be getting from their own schools, and made some of those school programs possible.

We collected donations because the programs we ran required a large operating budget, benefited tens of thousands of kids under the age of twenty-one, and didn’t generate much income. It was harder to draw donations, I think, because many of these children were not in desperate financial condition (although some were), so we had to appeal to the part of the soul that prioritizes arts education.

Ask questions before you give any money. People like Linda Walther Tirado will continue to take advantage of the kindness of strangers. I don’t think we can ever get to the point at which the public as a whole refuses to give money to scammers and they just give up. Nevertheless, it’s important not to contribute to the encouragement of this behavior. The only way you can prevent yourself from becoming a victim of a liar’s scam like this is to not blindly give away your money, even if it is only $50.

If you read someone’s sad story and are compelled to give money, take some time to think about it first. Do some research.

Don’t give money an an individual. Consider giving the same amount of money to a charitable organization that has a good record of using donor’s money towards a mission you believe in. Don’t be a sucker with your money. When you give to a reputable charitable organization, there’s a record of your donation and oversight of the group’s activities.

Use your compassion in a way that will actually help someone who needs it or that supports a mission you believe in. Helping legitimize a cyberbeggar is not a good use of your charitable dollars, even five of them.

Photo: Flickr/Adrian Miles

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If a friend or relative comes to you and asks to borrow money, it’s rarely a good idea to offer a loan. If the person in question does need financial help and you’re in a position to offer them a gift, without any strings attached, without the gift interrupting your own financial goals, it might be worth considering just offering the money without any expectations of repayment.

Once you do this, you’re relying on the recipient’s ability to use your money wisely. When you offer a gift, you don’t want to see that gift wasted, but you’re giving up some control. If the person in need came to you because they needed to afford food for their children, you want to see those children fed with the money you provide. When you give money, and you see the money spent in a way you don’t approve, your only recourse is not to offer a gift again. It’s no longer your money, so you have no say regarding its use.

Giving money to a charitable organization or an educational institution is a little different. I might have first understood this while in high school. My high school had a pretty sophisticated television studio for a high school, in my opinion at the time. There was one of those large satellite dishes outside the building. This is before satellite television became a popular alternative to cable television, so this is not one of the dishes that a homeowner would attach to his roof. This was a large, white dish that looks like it should be used in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence array of radio receivers.

Asking around, the word is the school had this massive satellite dish, and probably the rest of the television production studio, because the school district received a gift from a donor that specifically required the school put the money to use for this specific purpose.

From the organization’s perspective, in many cases they’d prefer to receive general donations. Management can then decide how best to use the received funds across the neediest programs. In high school, the performing arts department could have used those grants to better effect than the television production department, but if the donor indicated the funds would be earmarked specifically for a satellite dish, there is nothing the school district could have done differently.

When you make a charitable contribution, you can designate how you’d like your contribution to be spent. Most donation forms provide a few standard options, but they also allow you to provide a written description. With instructions, you can ensure that the money you provide is used in the way you believe is most appropriate, even if the organization’s management might have other needs. Who knows more about an organizations needs, the donor or the management?

Sometimes, this may not matter, as the donor wants the gift to be personally relevant. I offer a donation to my undergraduate university every year, and I designate a specific group on campus to receive the funds, but I don’t offer any instructions beyond that. It’s a relatively small amount for the organization on campus, so I figure that those in charge will be able to best decide how the funds are spent, whether as a scholarship, new materials for students, for travel, professional stipends, or general expenses — once those funds get to the organization within the university I want to support.

For two years in a row, I matched Consumerism Commentary readers’ donations to their own choice of charities with a donation on behalf of the website to an organization that was looking for support for a specific project. In November of both years, I announced the intended charitable organization and we collected information on readers’ donations through Thanksgiving.

In 2009, we donated $3,584 — matching readers’ contributions — to the World Food Programme; in 2010, we donated a total of more than 14,000 to Médecins Sans Frontières. The following November, I no longer owned Consumerism Commentary, so the series ended, but the two years of this project, I donated the matching funds to each of the two organizations without any further instruction.

If you don’t agree with an organization’s overall use of money — for example, if you believe a university’s full professorships and administrative positions are overpaid while the university takes advantage of its adjunct staff — you can use designations to make sure your gift doesn’t fall into the same trap. You can, for instance, try to direct your funds in such a way they help students directly. The same is true when you provide a gift to a non-educational charity; you can direct your grant to the program that would use the cash to the biggest effect while supporting the organization’s mission.

You can’t necessarily do this when you give money to a friend or relative, but when you remain close and you see the funds misused, it can be frustrating.

Don’t give money to friends or family if you are concerned about whether the funds will be put to the same use you would like to see. If you aren’t willing to let an adult decide how to use your gift, it might be better if they seek help from someone else. You could find other ways to help than by giving money. For example, if your needy friend is coming to you because their old car is totaled and need a replacement to get to work each day, you can assist them with buying a replacement rather than giving the money to do so on their own.

If you can’t let go of the need to control — or even the need to see someone make what you believe are the correct choices — don’t give your money away.

Photo: Flickr/Gerard Eviston

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It happened after September 11, Katrina, Sandy, the Boston Marathon, and other disasters, man-made and natural, around the world. After serious tragedies, when a compassionate public is at its most vulnerable, unscrupulous individuals find taking advantage the world’s generosity comes easy. Within hours — even minutes — of the news, new operations spring up, offering to collect donations in support of victims.

Thanks to today’s electronic environment where sharing news is effective and fast, with only one mouse-click, well-meaning people spread information at a faster rate than ever. Who has time to fact-check when lives are on the line? That’s how one message on Twitter, purporting that the owner would donate $1 to Boston’s victims every time the message was shared, spread so quickly.

Just pausing for a few seconds to look at the basic facts about the owner of that Twitter account should have been enough to signal the lack of validity to the statement, but the rewards of sharing such a message outweighed the risk. After all, the Twitter message wasn’t asking anyone to send any money.

In the scam spectrum, this was pretty tame. Once money is involved, the stakes are higher. Use common sense before giving any relief organization your money:

  • An official-sounding name doesn’t make an organization official. Make sure the organization shares important information online, like its founders and board members.
  • Organizations must file with their state before soliciting donations. It’s worth a call to the appropriate Department of State before sending money.
  • Sites like CharityNavigator can tell you more about a non-profit organization, but even legitimate pop-up charities might not be listed in the immediate aftermath.
  • The IRS website allows visitors to search for an organization’s 501(c)3 (non-profit) status. But the IRS can take months to grant the status, so again, if timely giving is important, you might not yet know whether your contributions are tax-deductible.
  • Don’t give anyone cash, and don’t give money to an organization that calls you out of the blue. The Office of the New Jersey Attorney General puts it best: Don’t give simply because of a pathetic “sob story.”

Not all charities are tax-deductible. If you are giving to a fund that helps a specific person or family, your money may be put to good use, but the organization will not be listed with the IRS as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Organizations can get into trouble if they claim donations will be tax deductible and are later unable to receive the blessing from the IRS, and when you pay your taxes, you could be hit with penalties and interest if you claim a donation is tax-deductible when it’s not.

Once you’ve parted with your money, your options are limited if you later find out the organization was fraudulent. Getting back your money could be a long process. There are some helpful suggestions from the New York Department of State, and I have amended with my own thoughts.

1. Contact the authorities.

You should report the suspected fraudulent charity with the details of the incident in which your money was solicited to the proper authorities. These include:

  • Your state’s Department of State, and the Department of State from wherever the fraudulent charity operates.
  • The Attorney General’s offices for both states. If there is enough evidence of fraud, the states will want to sue the organization to recover the money for the donors and possible pursue criminal charges as well.
  • Contact the Federal Trade Commission and report the incident.

2. Share a warning through social media.

When the “Blogger” software was released, its tagline was “push-button publishing for the people.” The World Wide Web had been around for years, but new software made it very easy and fast for anyone with an internet connection to have a voice, spreading news and opinions. The world hasn’t slowed down since. The next video seen by millions of people is not going to be a program broadcast by a major television network or a blockbuster movie in a theater. It’s going to be a clip uploaded to YouTube, spreading from one person to around the world like a fast-moving virus, made by some kid with nothing more than a webcam.

This gives a power of influence to anyone, and you can use that power to let others know about the fraud you experienced. There are laws against defamation, so before you publicly slam a company for committing fraud you better be prepared for that company to come after you; but if you can get the message out, warning the public and sharing the facts, you can help bring attention to the issue and possible prevent others from falling into the same trap.

3. Recover your money.

If you paid with a credit card, you’re in pretty good shape. If you become aware of the fraud rather quickly, you can contact the credit card issuer. You will have to show that you made an effort to recover the money directly from the perpetrator, but a fraudulent organization will be difficult to contact after they take your money.

Disputing the charge will most likely end up in a cancellation of your payment to the organization, and you won’t be liable for what you paid.

If you paid with a check that has already cleared, getting your money back might be more difficult. You might need to wait for your state to take legal action, and that could be a long process.

In times of crisis, don’t let your guard down. Compassion is a great virtue; I’m thankful knowing that the human spirit is alive and people, emotionally moved, are looking to help in the face of a crisis. I think everyone who’s been aware of the news lately has seen similar support after the recent events, the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the explosion in West, Texas.

The urge — the need — to help immediately is powerful, but it can’t be an excuse for making bad decisions about money. Don’t give money without due diligence, and if you find yourself a victim of a charity scam, report it to the authorities and warn others.

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Giving Tuesday: Turning Black Friday on Its Head

by Luke Landes

It’s approaching that time of year again. The holiday shopping season, with the massive retail marketing campaigns surrounding Black Friday and Cyber Monday, will be the industry’s final major push in an attempt to turn consumer confidence around and inspire spending. Over the past two years, companies have seen the potential social media — communication ... Continue reading this article…

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PayPal Makes Accepting Charity Difficult

by Luke Landes

Around the holidays, for-profit companies see an opportunity to do something charitable, even though they’re not technically registered non-profit organizations. The concept reminds me of college. I was in my university’s marching band, and we frequently traveled as a group to performances. At the end of the trips, someone on the bus collected money from ... Continue reading this article…

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Year End Reminder: Donate to Charity

by Luke Landes
Charity Box

The year is quickly coming to a close, and the first priority for many people right now is getting through the holidays with as little stress as possible. Focusing solely on the holidays at the expense of your household’s financial needs can only add to stress later, so it might help to get a few ... Continue reading this article…

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Tax Deduction for Time Spent Volunteering

by Luke Landes
Volunteer

I recently received reader feedback from a conscious saver who is planning to move his money from Wells Fargo to a credit union. She won’t make the Bank Transfer Day November 5 goal, because the credit union’s branch is planned to open November 7. This reader plans to be one of the new branch’s first ... Continue reading this article…

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Safe Donations to Victims of the Tsunami in Japan

by Luke Landes

Updated March 16, 2011. If you have been paying attention to the media, you most likely saw terrifying footage of tsunami waves destroying much of the eastern coastal areas of Japan, particularly Miyagi prefecture. Friday’s earthquake measuring 9.0 magnitude on the Richter scale triggered massive waves that leveled homes and farms, left thousands missing, forced ... Continue reading this article…

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Readers Gave $8,000 to Charity Since Thanksgiving

by Luke Landes

For the second year in a row, I offered to match Consumerism Commentary readers’ charitable contributions donated during the two weeks following Thanksgiving, up to $5,000. After extending the matching period a third week, and with MoneyCrush‘s offer to match the contributions made between $5,000 and $6,000, we surpassed all goals. After falling slightly short ... Continue reading this article…

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MoneyCrush Adding Support to the Charity Match

by Luke Landes

On Thanksgiving, I announced that Consumerism Commentary would match charitable donations through December 11, 2010 with a donation to Médecins Sans Frontières up to $5,000. Word is spreading, and other bloggers are interested in participating as well. Jackie from MoneyCrush has announced that she will match donations reported above the $5,000, raising the bar to ... Continue reading this article…

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Consumerism Commentary Matching Charitable Donations for Thanksgiving

by Luke Landes
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Last year, Consumerism Commentary matched $3,584 in readers’ charitable contributions. For every dollar that readers donated and informed us, we made a matching donation to the World Food Programme (through the American arm of the organization, the Friends of the World Food Program). I felt this was a great way to give thanks to our ... Continue reading this article…

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Newark Public Schools to Receive $100 Million

by Luke Landes

Earlier this year, the State of New Jersey missed out in $400 million in federal aid for public schools due to an administrative error and the political inability to take the educational needs of the state’s students seriously. This money would have been part of the federal Race to the Top program, a set of ... Continue reading this article…

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Secret Billionaire Meeting Revealed

by Luke Landes

In May 2009, a group of the most powerful individuals in the world held a secret meeting to discuss the plans for their significant wealth. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett convinced David Rockefeller to to preside over the first of several billionaire meet-ups. Their idea was first to discuss philanthropy with like-minded individuals and determine ... Continue reading this article…

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Donations For Haiti Relief Will Be Deductible For 2009 Taxes

by Luke Landes

Earlier today the House of Representatives passed a bill to encourage more charitable contributions for recovery in Haiti. Once this bill passes the Senate and is signed into law by the President, and I expect it won’t be long until this law is official, those of us who have donated or will donate cash before ... Continue reading this article…

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Safe Donations to Victims of the Earthquake in Haiti

by Luke Landes

Yesterday, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, with the center only less than ten miles from Port-au-Prince, the capital of the country. Of course, the news of the devastation has been everywhere in the media. Major landmarks have been destroyed by the disaster, including the Presidential Palace and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral. Haiti is a poor ... Continue reading this article…

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Consumerism Commentary Matching Charitable Donations for Thanksgiving

by Luke Landes

On behalf of myself, Smithee, and Tom Dziubek, to all those who celebrate today, have a happy Thanksgiving. I will be spending the day with my girlfriend’s family in New York. Although there’s nothing that makes one day of the calendar inherently more special than any other day, Thanksgiving is a good opportunity to think ... Continue reading this article…

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Donations to Rural Classrooms Worth Twice as Much

by Luke Landes

A few years ago, the personal finance blogging community came together to create the pfblogs.org Financial Literacy Challenge through DonorsChoose.org, a charity that facilitates funding for classroom projects needing money. The challenge was designed for bloggers to encourage their readers to provide tax-deductible donations through DonorsChoose.org to fund classroom projects focusing on increasing financial knowledge. ... Continue reading this article…

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2008 Charitable Giving: Did You Contribute Less?

by Luke Landes

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my long-term goals is to run a foundation to support arts education, specifically music education. To do this effectively, I would require a significant amount of start-up capital, and I’m not quite there yet. I’m not quite sure that I will ever have the opportunity to succeed, but if ... Continue reading this article…

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Charitable Giving: A Case of Bad Market Timing

by Luke Landes

I made a mistake, and I should have known better. Last year, I struggled with coming up with a needy non-profit organization that I felt I should support through charitable giving. The indecision stems from the desire to contribute to an organization with a mission that reflected one of my passions and the lack of ... Continue reading this article…

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