As thoughts turn to holiday giftgiving, it's no coincidence that charities step up their solicitations. And let's face it: Groups with highly visible campaigns often collect the lion's share of contributions.
As an alternative, we searched for worthy charities with lower profiles that are easy to overlook in the holiday donation rush. Only one of our picks makes the list of top-100 charities in terms of fund-raising. Most are too small to be evaluated by the major charity watchdogs, but all spend a respectable 78% or more on programs (the three figures following the phone number in the listings below show the percentage of expenses spent on programs, management and fund-raising, respectively).
Gifts to all of them are taxdeductible, but you'll need a receipt to deduct any single donation over $250 (see "Winning Year-End Tax Steps," on page 53).
* The Holiday Project, 2029 Vista Lane, Petaluma, CA 94954; 707-763-2160 (81%; 13%; 6%). Last Christmas Day Al Gillette, a general contractor from Napa, Cal., his wife, Myra, and other volunteers brought a stuffed animal to each resident of the local veterans home. The small presents were a big hit. "It's not really about the gift," says Gillette. "It's about the visit."
Last year more than 10,000 volunteers in 35 states visited about 100,000 people in nursing homes, hospitals, juvenile detention centers and other institutions on holidays throughout the year. "We visit the `forgotten' people," says Holiday Project's national executive director Joan Bordow. The national office runs on an annual budget of about $160,000. You can also call for information about volunteering.
* The Better Homes Fund, 181 Wells Ave., Newton Centre, MA 02159; 800-962-4676 (78%; 10%; 12%). Started in 1988 by the editors of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, the fund develops programs for homeless families and supports community programs that provide day care, health care and job training.
Its current project, Kidstart, evaluates preschoolers and coordinates counseling and education. There are 20 Kidstart programs in 12 states and the District of Columbia. A new program for 1997, Bounce Back, will assist homeless children who have felt the effects of family violence.
* Operation Outreach-USA, 350 S. Huntington Ave.,Boston, MA 02130; 800-243-7929 (87%; 9%; 3%). In addition to instilling children from Concord MA Preschool through eighth grade with a love of reading, this literacy program tries to promote character development and violence prevention through specially designed books.
A program of the American Humane Education Society, Operation Outreach-USA costs $10 per student and teacher per year and has reached more than 250,000 students in 19 states since it began in 1991. If your area participates (call to ask), you can specify that your contribution be used locally.
* Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, 1603 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 502, Chicago, IL 60616; 312-786-0501 (78%; 19%; 4%). "Flowers before bread" is the motto of this small group that was founded in France in 1946 and exported to the U.S. in 1959. Its mission: to relieve isolation and loneliness among the elderly. In addition to establishing friendships that often last for years, volunteers provide little extras: They bring flowers and a small gift with the meals they deliver; decorate tables at parties and luncheons; and organize picnics and outings to ballgames.
There are Little Brothers chapters in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Houghton, Mich. You can earmark donations to any chapter, volunteer to be a Little Brother (women are welcome), or call for ways to find similar activities in your community.
* YWCA, 726 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003; 800-992-2871 (82%; 11%; 7%). Hardly an unknown organization, the YWCA ranks among the top 100 charities in terms of fund-raising. But most people aren't aware that it runs the nation's largest network of shelters for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. The shelters supply clothing and food, and often run support groups and help obtain other social services. Staffers sometimes go to court or the hospital with the moms and kids in their care.
You can contribute directly to a shelter in your area or in your state (call to ask).
The scholarship-search sting
You need every dime you can hoard when you're saving to finance a college education. So don't rush to spend money on a scholarship search, even if it says it guarantees results.
In September the Federal Trade Commission filed charges against five scholarship-search companies, seeking to shut them down permanently and require refunds to students. The companies--including the Higher Education Scholarship Program, Student Aid Inc. and Student Assistance Services Inc.--charged up to $299 for searches "guaranteed" to net students a minimum of $1,000 to $2,000 in scholarships. Most students, if they received anything at all, got a list of scholarships that were defunct, past deadline or for which they could not qualify, according to the FTC.
Students seeking refunds were told by the search firms that they had to apply to each source on the list and send a rejection letter from each one back to the firm. Some students even managed to jump through those hoops--and still didn't get their money back, the FTC says.
If you want to hunt for scholarships, you can search at least two data bases for free. Many high school guidance counselors have access to the College Board's Fund Finder, which is also available on the Internet (http://www.collegeboard.org). Another free source on the Internet is fastWeb (http://web.studentservices .com/fastweb).
Check out your financial adviser
Has the broker to whom you're about to entrust your life savings ever been fined for unauthorized trading? Finding out whether a financial adviser has a questionable past used to require multiple phone calls to state and federal regulators. Now just one call may do the trick.
The National Council of Individual Investors and the National Fraud Exchange are offering "Financial Adviser Alert"--a one-stop background check on brokers, financial planners, accountants, mortgage officers and others. The service searches records of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Justice and other federal agencies; state commissions on securities, mortgage banking and real estate; and self-regulatory groups such as the National Association of Securities Dealers.
If your adviser has been subject to criminal, civil, enforcement or administrative action in the securities or financial-services industry, you'll find out immediately. The check can also uncover pending actions, such as an arbitration claim against a broker. The service (800-822-0416) costs $39.
Bargain-basement insurance rates
For the past couple of years, insurers have been crying wolf with regard to level-premium term life insurance. Every six months or so someone in the industry issues a press release declaring that rates are falling and urging consumers to buy before rates go back up--as they surely will when the dreaded Regulation XXX (also known as Triple X) goes into effect.
So far, however, the adoption of Triple X has moved at a glacial pace and rates for term life policies with level premiums guaranteed for longer than five years have continued to plummet. Proposed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, Triple X would require insurance companies to maintain higher reserves on term policies with premium guarantees longer than five years--and, industry analysts say, that would either push up premiums or make the coverage unavailable. Illinois is the only state to adopt Triple X--and even there the law won't go into effect until other states, representing a total of 51% of the U.S. population, pass similar regulations.
Meanwhile, rates for level-premium term have fallen dramatically (in some cases, by nearly 40% since 1991), pushed down by market forces: more companies selling term life insurance; increased competition from insurance quote services that compare rates among policies; a shrinking pool of new customers because most baby-boomers have bought life insurance; and more sophisticated underwriting tools.
Critics say only a fraction of extremely healthy individuals actually qualify for the lowest advertised rates. "Some companies that don't offer these low rates say you have to be an astronaut to buy this insurance," says Joseph Mint, a former insurance agent who now works as a consumer advocate. But even premiums for so-called standard-category customers--people who, for example, are overweight or take bloodpressure medication--have dropped by about 30% since 1991. A 45-yearold male nonsmoker can buy a 20year, $250,000 level-term policy for an annual premium of $710 in the standard category; a preferred buyer would pay $507, according to figures compiled by Insurance Information Inc., of South Dennis, Mass. And with Triple X languishing, there's no indication that premium rates will rise any time soon. lus a safety