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6 tips to donate to charity the smart way

Before you write a check to a charity this holiday season, follow these tips to ensure your money is being used to make a difference, not a profit.

By MSN Money Partner Nov 11, 2013 3:56PM

This post comes from Maryalene Laponsie at partner site

Money Talks News on MSN MoneyWe are fast approaching the winter holidays and that means Salvation Army buckets will be making appearances outside stores across the U.S. But it's not just the Salvation Army that ramps up its fundraising during the happiest season. A 2011 report from The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that nearly 70 percent of Americans believe it is important to give to charities during the holidays.

For many of us, donating to the less fortunate is just as much a part of the season’s celebration as tinsel and carols. However, don’t let your warm and fuzzy feelings lead you to make bad decisions when it comes to donating to charities.

1. Pick your passion

Of course, before you can donate to a charity, you need to find one. Start by considering what fires you up. What would you change about the world? Which injustice would you right if given the chance?

From curing childhood cancer to saving the oceans, there are charities for virtually every cause. Once you settle on your general area of focus, decide whether you want to donate locally, nationally or internationally. If you are concerned about hunger, you could donate to the local food bank or perhaps you’ll feel called to help those in developing countries. It’s your call. There is no right answer.

2. Make sure your charity is legit

After you know your cause, it’s time to find a charity worth your money. You could do a Google search, but you are better off going to a dedicated site like Charity Navigator or GuideStar.

According to Giving USA Foundation, Americans donated more than $316 billion to charitable causes in 2012. With so much money at stake, charity scams can be big business for rip-off A woman makes a donation into a Salvation Army kettle on November 24, 2012, in Clifton, Va. (© Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images) artists who prey on others' good intentions. Some so-called charities aren’t even registered tax-exempt organizations and are simply a front to siphon money into the owner’s pocket.

Avoid being duped by charity scams by double-checking any charity’s credentials through Charity Navigator, GuideStar or, which is run by the Better Business Bureau.

3. Watch out for excessive administrative expenses

Next, even if your charity is legitimate, that doesn’t mean your money will be used wisely. Before you donate to Kids Wish Network – dubbed America’s worst charity by one report – you probably should know it spends less than 3 percent of its money on actually granting kids’ wishes.

According to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance standards, a charitable organization should spend at least 65 percent of its money on program expenses – that is, activities directly related to its cause. While 65 percent may be the bare minimum, you can find many charities that go above and beyond. For example, consider Feeding America, which spends a whopping 97.9 percent of its budget on program expenses.

4. Make your money work harder

Once you’ve made a couple donations, your mailbox is likely to begin filling with solicitations. It may be tempting to spread the wealth and give a little here and a little there, but your money will go further if you concentrate your donations on one charity, advises Charity Navigator on its website.

Remember, each organization has handling and processing costs associated with receiving your donation. There may not be much left of your small donation after those costs are worked into the equation.

5. Donate directly

Never make a donation to a telephone solicitor.

First, they may not even be legitimate. Telephone charity scams use names similar to well-known organizations or they may say they are raising money for causes that tug at the heart strings such as supporting military families, veterans or police officers. In reality, your money will be used to profit the person calling and do nothing more.

Second, even if it is a legitimate charity, by donating over the phone, there is a very good chance only a small portion of your money will actually make it to the organization in question. A report from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette found that, on average, only 35 percent of the gross proceeds raised by third-party fundraisers in that state actually went to charities.

6. Give more than money

Finally, don’t forget that your favorite charity can likely use more than just your money. Soup kitchens need hands to serve food; environmental groups need feet to survey land. If you have a particular skill such as Web design or marketing, you may be able to donate those services too.

Volunteering is a win-win. It means less money a charity must spend on hired help, and it gives you a chance to walk the walk and actually make a difference. And that is a warm, fuzzy feeling no check can ever match.

What is your favorite charity? Tell us in the comments below who you support and why they get your money.

More on Money Talks News

Nov 11, 2013 10:10PM
I'm a nurse.Hate to say it,but my donations all go to the animals.There are more people giving to people charities.The animals are nicer than people are!
Nov 11, 2013 9:25PM
I support several; however, every month I do support the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.  They help people to overcome drugs, alchol and also help with food and shelter for those who need a hand up.  I have donated blankets in the winter in the past but I help by donating money every month that they can count on.  During holidays I love to donate to the Salvation Army because of the good they do.  Give to them to support the people in the Philippines it will get there.  Donating to other organizations, you will find out later just how little they give.  Check out all your charities before giving your money, sometimes they don't help others as much as you thought, they help their own adminstrative fees and salaries.  This is not donations that will help other people.  Voluteer when you can, it is important.  The suffering need your help, NOW.
Nov 11, 2013 10:15PM

Check and see how badly the administrators are ripping people off.  Some of the top paid executives have atrocity salaries.

Salvation Army has the least paid executive/leader of all charitable organizations that I have checked out.

The bho healthcare fund in America's biggest rip-off!!!

Nov 11, 2013 11:44PM
Here's a tip: don't give cash to charities. Ever. If you want to give, then buy food and clothing and other necessities and give that.

I'm a mail carrier for the USPS and I see what happens to charitable contributions. Have you seen the new mailers with money in them? There are coins in them, forever stamps, and sometimes even paper dollars. Where does the money for this come from? Do you want to give cash so you can get on a mailing list, then see your money go to other people who don't need it?

Another problem is that non-profit organizations can mail letters and large envelopes for just five cents. But in that case that mail never gets forwarded, because the organization is not paying for the extra services. So oftentimes these expensively printed envelopes and letters and charity seals and greeting cards go straight into the recycler. I come back to the station with a thick handful of those after every workday. THAT'S what's happening with your cash contributions.

Nov 11, 2013 11:32PM
Nov 12, 2013 12:19AM
Salvation Army and Ronald McDonald are very good charities.  I never donate to any group that buys TV time with donated money, they most likely have over paid executives as well.
Nov 11, 2013 11:01PM

I also prefer to help the animals, on top of donating to the ASPC we feed the animals during winter months ( Deer, Turkey's, Squirrels, Birds, and many more, wish more people did - they need help too).

We also donate to the Red Cross International - Philippines , and St Jude's and Shriners Hospitals for children - They help all children, don't charge patients, etc...

I do volunteer occasionally - should probably do more of that though...

Nov 11, 2013 11:45PM
I made the mistake of giving $10 to some fly-by-night "charity" years ago. I asked them to stop calling me because I had never heard of the organization, and when I then asked the woman on the phone if she was a volunteer or an employee, she suddenly got snotty & indignant so I hung up on her. No more calls after that! 

I like Ronald McDonald House Charities. I've seen first-hand the outstanding effort RMHC gives to the community-at-large. As a volunteer, I've cooked meals, made treats, cleaned, talked to parents while folding 100 pounds of linens, taken photos and listened to families share stories of both joy and sadness. There's at least one Ronald McDonald House in every major city. And if my child is ever sick or injured while we're away from home, I know where to go. I'd also pick St. Jude's in Memphis, TN. 
Nov 11, 2013 9:20PM
Kids wish network should be banned less than 3 percent goes to kids wishes . Just a bunch of thieves must be run by the government
Nov 11, 2013 11:25PM
you gotta be careful.  we gave to a charity that supposedly helped highway patrolmen who were killed or injured on duty. as it turned out, less than 10% actually got to the intended families.
Nov 12, 2013 12:30AM

I've worked at my company for almost 30 years.....and every single year they made a major push to donate to the United Way. Every single year, I've donated and raised the amount of my donation. This year, I suppose they had a United Way drive.....there was a notice posted at the time clocks announcing the winners of gift cards for United Way donations......but I never heard about it.

Of course, in the past, the United Way donation campaign was managed by the in-store HR managers. Now there are no HR managers to spread the word......because the entire HR department was eliminated.

Oh well, that's another $20 a week in my pay.

Nov 12, 2013 1:36PM
Section 8 housing, Medicaid, unemployment, snap, free phones, welfare... I paid for the year already.
Nov 12, 2013 1:15AM
One of the most reputable charities in this nation is Samaritan's Purse, founded by Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham.  Whenever there is a disaster, they are there, working tirelessly to bring doctors, medicine, food, water and other needed supplies to the people who need it most.  
Another excellent charity is Compassion First of Beaverton, Oregon.  They state, "Compassion First provides long-term, hope-filled solutions for victims of child sexual trafficking. We bring healing, restoration and most importantly the means for a bright and hopeful future in the lives of women and young girls who have been sexually trafficked."

Dec 14, 2013 1:50PM
I chose to give to Salvation Army, Michael J. Fox Parkinson's Foundation and Wounded Warrior's Project. I donate pet food to a local Humane Society. I don't want to line an executive's pockets so I research where the money goes. Pay it forward. Merry Christmas.
Nov 13, 2013 4:38PM
We donate locally. Goods when we can, cash if requested. Humane Society, food pantry, local Salvation Army & Red Cross (occasionally national disaster relief). We are not the best samaritans; no bragging here.
Dec 31, 2013 5:31PM

Charity donations are a fast and simple way to help those who are less fortunate, but we have to make sure we are giving to a cause that truly deserves it and one we know will actually use the donated products to help its people not make profit. Making a difference can be as easy as finding an old item that is not in use and giving it away to a charity who can truly take advantage of all the benefits that item may hold. I donated an old car to and it was great knowing I gave it to a charity that takes the car and actually gives it to someone who can really use it to change their lives and allow them to enable so many new possibilities that were limited due to a simple lack of transportation. At They accept running and non-running vehicles to provide transportation and even financial aid. I know that they are non-profit and really use everything they get to help people. In such tough times, I think we can all do a little something to help, especially for a cause that makes such a great difference for everyday people limited by what is a necessity.

Dec 15, 2013 2:11PM
12 months in a year and people only manage to donate around xmas.  
Nov 12, 2013 1:45AM

I support Nehemiah's Restoration.  I am friends with the founder and work with his wife.  They and their children have done Mission trips to the areas in Africa that they try to affect and Rob, the founder, does not even draw a salary.  I get to see and know first hand the lives that are being changed.  The organization does several things, the main mission is to give people a way to live and support themselves after whatever catastrophe has struck them not just to give a short term helping hand.  Look it up, they even have a $7 per month program that can make a difference.

Nov 11, 2013 7:17PM

There are still a lot of problems with who can apply, where they can apply and what do they need to be qualified.  I am aware of one male that is unemployed, is medically not able to work that was told he has to get a medical evaluation (to get a medical evaluation, the hospital wants over $200.00 up front for the evaluation. Where does he get the money?  He gives up and stays on the list as one that doesn’t apply) before they will give him Medicaid.  The workers in the field are either not knowledgeable or they are discouraging young people from applying. Training and guidance is needed in the field; not just at the federal level. A major factor tied to low sign ups by the young is the availability of information about what is happening in the individual states.  The young people are not getting the word and do not know what is happening, i.e., 23 states are currently expanding Medicaid, 4 states have a customized Medicaid expansion, 4 states are undecided about Medicaid expansion and 20 states are currently not going to expand.  Get the word out, put pressure on the states and you will see an increase in the number of young adults signing up on the ACA websites.  Keep hiding the information and the program will dies for lack of inputs.  Young people operate in a crisis mode; if there is not a crisis they would rather do nothing but visit with friends they are not supposed to be with, drink what they are not supposed to drink, eat only when starving or junk food, treat money as though it were trash and give it away to a friend or buy junk with it. They have a brain that is not yet developed and it probably won't develop for years to come; some brains will never develop because of burn out. Girls think of boys and what is hung between their legs and boys think of girls and what is between their legs; both often think with these body parts.  When they get sick it is an emergency or Mom and Dad take care of them.  Trying to entice young people to do the right thing is almost impossible.  This is a very big mistake that was made with the ACA. Also keep in mind that many young people, especially males, are out of work or have only part time employment and should qualify for Medicaid, but they will not apply because they are lazy and/or believe that anything that is free has attachments tied to it and they want nothing to do with it.  Many young males try to apply for Medicaid and are turned away because they cannot prove that they are unemployed or disabled and are told the program is for women only or males below 18 years of age, or they must get a medical evaluation; where is the money coming from to get a medical evaluation?  Should the GOP help with the ACA, the use factor would be very high and people would like and accept it as they do Medicare.

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