Florence 1996: My mother and I climbed the stairs out of the subway underpass. As we approached street level, three women approached us, frantic. One held a baby up to our faces, the other put a large cardboard box lid at our chest level, and all three said in their foreign accent: “The baby, the baby – help the baby, money for the baby.” It was chaotic, and knowing Italy’s reputation for pickpockets, we quickly sensed that this was a scam and we were not to be had. We plowed away, stopped, and I told my mother to check her pockets.

Sure enough, her wallet was gone, taken right out of her front fanny pack. I turned, and dashed after them, catching up to them in the center of the underground pass. I made a scene, and another woman joined in. Before I knew it, the undercover police were there. We got the wallet. Uniform police took the women, and the undercover police took me. “Do you want to get yourself killed?” they asked. “If we hadn’t come along, they would have knifed you.”

I still don’t know what came over me. I guess I don’t take kindly to deceit, especially by people who use innocence to their benefit.

Flash forward to 2008. We’ve all gotten those phone calls that tug at your heart strings – a cause, charity or community member in your hometown is looking for your support and they’d like to sell you some tickets to a comedy show. The friendly voice on the other end of the phone is deceiving. You are led to believe the caller is from the organization, and are told you’ve given before.

But beware, this fundraising tactic can be deceptive. Contrary to what you may be led to believe, the person on the line works for a for-profit fundraising company. And as for that donation that you may be contemplating – well, you can count on only a small percentage actually going to the charitable organization or group that you think you’re talking to.

Have you been taken? That depends on how you look at it. It’s common for promoted events to give a portion of the proceeds to a charitable organization. Two dollars of an $8 ticket going to charity would appear generous. It helps to promote the event, knowing that a good cause is also benefiting. But what if the actual event is a mere afterthought? You’re being asked to make a donation to the charity, and in return you’ll get a few tickets to the show. The question then becomes: How much is that show costing your organization?

You may soon realize that this comedy show is not that funny.

The phone call came last Sunday. The Scarborough Athletic Council was bringing three comedians to town. My past support has always been appreciated. Would I please buy tickets to this year’s event, being held May 31 at the Winslow Homer Auditorium. Proceeds would raise money for our student athletes and would fund a $3,000 athletic scholarship. On the surface, it all sounded legitimate to me.

I asked who the comedians were, and was told that they hadn’t figured that out yet.

“Who do you work for?” I asked.

“East Coast Marketing Group,” the caller responded.

“Are you a for-profit company?” I asked.

There was hesitation on the phone, followed by admission that wages were being earned to help out the Scarborough Athletic Council.

“What percentage of the money actually goes to the Scarborough Athletic Council?” I asked.

The caller asked to speak to my husband.

“I can handle this. What percentage of the money raised goes to the Scarborough Athletic Council?” I repeated.

“I don’t have the breakdown,” the caller said, urging me to call the Scarborough Athletic Council to verify its legitimacy.

I did. As I suspected, only 25 percent of the money raised goes to the Scarborough Athletic Council. It became clear. East Coast Marketing isn’t in the entertainment business, and isn’t philanthropic, either. It is in business to make money. Deceptive? I think so.

Fundraising is hard. Small, nonprofit organizations use companies like these because they are an easy way to raise money. As our economy slows charitable dollars are harder to come by. And as people fall on challenging times, the need for more dollars becomes greater as the pool of resources becomes less.

Yet, as a community, we can’t afford to be sending the majority of our charitable donations to a for-profit company, and no one should have to ask as many questions as I did to find out where a donation is going.

We are blessed to live in a very generous community. On the whole, I believe that people would like to support each group that asks for help. Boosters, organizations and nonprofits ask a lot of our community, and it feels good to give.

Our community groups need our support. Choose wisely, ask question and maximize your gift. Pass on the comedy show, and send your check directly to the Scarborough Athletic Council: P.O Box 1497, Scarborough, ME 04070-1497.

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