Something was wrong with Abby.
The little girl with the bright blue eyes and sweet smile had always been on the go, an active toddler who loved playing with her older brother and sister in their Atlanta home. But her parents started to get worried in the spring of 2006 when their baby girl was having trouble keeping her balance. She was falling down a lot. She stumbled while trying to push her doll stroller.
The family hoped for the best. Maybe it was just an inner ear infection, they thought. So they took Abby to the local hospital. A CT scan was ordered. The results were devastating for the young parents. Their little girl, just 23 months old, had cancer.
Abby was diagnosed with a brain tumor on March 3. Three days later, she underwent surgery to remove the tumor. At that point, she could no longer walk. Abby suffered through 12 exhausting months of chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiation.
Abby's final radiation treatment took place on May 28, 2007. The summer passed and she gradually regained some strength. By this fall, she was even well enough to start preschool. But in September, an MRI exam revealed that Abby had three more tumors. These were on her spine and inoperable. The only option was more chemotherapy and radiation sessions. Abby has had multiple blood transfusions, and in November, she spent more time at the hospital than at home.
Abby's aunt, Christy Bennett, wanted people to know about pediatric brain disease and the toll it takes.
"I was watching what Abby was going through every day," Bennett says. "That made me want to raise as much money as possible to help research the disease. If you see a child suffer like this, then you want to find a cure."
So Bennett set up an online fundraising page at Firstgiving.com, a Web site where individuals raise money for nonprofit organizations in the U.S. There, using a template provided by the service, she set up a Web page. She wrote about Abby's struggle, and asked people to support her participation in the annual William's Walk & Run, an event to raise money for the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization founded to help families of children with brain and spinal cord tumors.
The Web page, dubbed Abby's Angels, was up and running on Oct. 17. The reaction was swift and surprising. In just three weeks, friends, family and complete strangers gave more than $19,000.
"I'm just amazed at how generous people have been," says Bennett.
As the year draws to a close, Americans are busy donating money to charities across the country. Donors are expected to give more than $100 billion to charities between Thanksgiving and the end of the year, according to Charity Navigator.
One area that is particularly popular is online giving. Nearly $7 billion was donated online last year. That's still a small percentage of overall giving (about $220 billion for individuals), but it's doubling every two years, according to Network for Good, one of the Internet's leading charitable exchanges.
The appeal of online charitable donating is its convenience. "For the donor, it's a huge time saver," says Bill Strathmann, CEO of Network for Good, a Web site that includes listings of more than 1.5 million U.S. charities and database of 40,000 volunteer opportunities. The nonprofit was founded in 2001 by America Online, Cisco Systems and Yahoo!.
Strathmann's shop surveyed its users, asking why they use the service. The primary reason, respondents said, was the convenience offered by the site. Also, many users appreciate the anonymity of giving online at Network for Good.
"You can make a donation and not share the information with the nonprofit," says Strathmann. "People want to support a cause, but they don't necessarily want recognition or to then get on some mailing list."
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One of Network for Good's users is Samantha Millman, a 26-year-old from Los Angeles, Calif., who donates money through the service to Bet Tzedek (Hebrew for the "House of Justice"), an organization that provides free legal assistance. Giving online is so easy and quick, Millman says, that it's made her more of a dedicated donor.
"It's easier to give, so I'm more apt to give," she says. "I have the donation made in a minute. My giving has increased threefold this year."
There are a few easy tips Strathmann provides for giving wisely. One, he says, is to budget for giving. Be sure to plan philanthropic activities into your budget like any other financial responsibility.
"Set up recurring donations for charities you care about," Strathmann says. "Do $10 a month. That's easier than giving $120 at the end of the year when you're trying to figure out whether you can afford it, along with all your other expenses."
Another tip: Be an informed giver.
Strathmann says people should ask a lot of questions. What are the financials of this nonprofit? What is their mission? What percentage of dollars is really going to that mission vs. general administrative expenses?
"Give with your head as well as your heart," he says.
Also keep in mind that many employers match gifts made by their employees. Strathmann says to ask your company if it can help your gift go even further.
"Many times, your companies will match," he says. "That's terrific. If it's a dollar for dollar match, then you can double what you give to these nonprofits. A lot of people don't think about that, but they should."
In addition, it's also important to consider the tax implications of charitable giving. Bob Meighan, vice president of TurboTax, cautions that there is a limit on how much you can deduct.
The basic rule is that the contributions can't exceed 50% of your adjusted gross income. If these restrictions limit the write-off in the year of the gift, the excess deduction carries over to the next year.
You can deduct charitable donations only if you itemize your deductions. TurboTax has a program called ItsDeductible that tracks and values non-cash items and puts the information directly into TurboTax on the Schedule A form.
Also, people need to realize that tax exempt is not the same as tax deductible. "A lot of state troopers' organizations, for instance, may have some charitable purpose, but they're not qualified organizations as defined by the IRS," says Meighan. Check the online version of IRS Publication 78 to search a list of organizations eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.
Of course, the charity industry does have its share of fraudsters and con artists. There are people out there who do take advantage of the public's trust in charity and hoodwink them out of money. But there are a few simple safeguards people can use to make sure their cash gets to the folks who need it.
Do some background research at GuideStar, a database of 1.7 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. There, users can verify a nonprofit's legitimacy, learn whether a contribution will be tax deductible, check out a nonprofit's recent Forms 990, and get a better sense of its mission, programs and finances.
Also, go to Charity Navigator, a New Jersey based organization that rates nonprofits. The outfit evaluates the financial health of over 5,000 charities. The watchdog group says it examines how responsibly the charity functions day to day as well as how well positioned it is to sustain its programs over time. Each charity is awarded an overall rating, from zero to four stars.
Americans will be checking out these sites as the year now nears an end, looking over which charities best represent their values and concerns. This is the time of year when people give the most. They know how much money they have left to donate and it makes sense for tax purposes.
But Americans also go online and give because of the holiday season, because this is when a lot of us feel especially motivated to give to those organizations dedicated to helping those in need, like the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children, that nonprofit Christy Bennett is helping raise money for.
Her niece, Abby, now 3-years-old, was back in the hospital this December. She had more blood and platelet transfusions. Bennett says that she tries to stay optimistic, believing still in Abby's eventual recovery and sustained by her Christian faith.
"She put up a great fight the first time," Bennett says. "She can make it. I don't know why this has happened to her. But, sometimes, you just can't understand. So you need a stronger belief, in something bigger than just us."