How to Choose the Best Charities for Your Donations

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One thing the best charities all have in common is that they make it easy for you to see where your contributions are going.

If you’re interested in charitable giving, an organization’s transparency should be important to you. In fact, it should be one of your biggest concerns.

How to Choose the Best Charities for Your Money

Unfortunately, there are many charities that make it difficult to see what portion of your donation is going to the actual cause and what’s allocated to things like operating expenses or fundraising.

In this article, I’ll lead you through four steps to help you choose the best charities for your donations.

1. Decide What You’re Passionate About

When it comes to giving, the adage to “follow your heart” is quite appropriate.

If you’re passionate about different causes like animals, veterans, the homeless, or something else, you’ll want to prioritize those kinds of organizations so that your money can make the biggest impact where you want it to.

Money expert Clark Howard gives his time and money to several charities that he’s deeply involved in. Here are a few of his favorites:

After you’ve narrowed your list down to a few or maybe even one cause, it’s time to find your charity.

2. Find a Charity That Matches Your Passion

There are several ways to find a nonprofit organization that you want to support.

You can reach out to community organizations like local shelters and foster care agencies. You also might be surprised what you can learn simply from talking to a neighbor.

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Another option is to look at online fundraising sites. Here are some popular crowdfunding resources where you can find passion projects:

(Editor’s Note: Not all the organizations listed on the sites above are nonprofits.)

A great resource for finding nonprofit organizations is Consumer Reports, which has a list of the best and worst charities.

Once you find a charity that matches your interests, it’s time to do your homework.

3. Research the Organization Before You Give

To make sure your dollars will be spent well, it’s wise to learn as much as you can about the organization before you start writing checks. The following charity watchdogs make it easy to research organizations online:

Give.org

Give.org is the website for the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, which not only provides information for prospective donors but also evaluates and accredits charities.

Does it cost for donors to use Give.org? No

How they rate charities: Give.org rates charities based on 20 standards, including complaints, donor privacy, conflicts of interest and more. On each report, you’ll see one of these symbols:

  • Green checkmark — “Meets Standards”
  • Yellow X — “Standards Not Met”
  • Blue question mark — “Unable to Verify”
  • Red Exclamation point — “Did Not Disclose”
  • Gray Ellipsis — “Review in Progress”

Give.org also lets you file a complaint against a charity, read and write reviews, and get tips on giving.

CharityWatch

CharityWatch is a nonprofit organization that has made it its mission to inform the public of wasteful or unethical practices by charities.

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Does it cost for donors to use CharityWatch? There’s a free version, but the site asks for a $50/year donation to get unlimited access to its services.

How they rate charities: CharityWatch assigns a letter grade (A+ to F) to charities depending on their financial efficiency. The grade is based on the following two criteria:

  • Program %: This is the percent of total expenses a charity spent on its programs in a given year.

Here’s an example CharityWatch uses on its site: “A Program % of 80% means that the charity spent 80% of its expenses on charitable programs. The remaining 20% was spent on overhead, which includes fundraising, and management & general.”

  • Cost to Raise $100: This reflects how much it costs the charity to raise $100 in cash donations from the public in a given year.

Here’s an example CharityWatch uses on its site: “A Cost to Raise $100 of $20 means that the charity spent $20 on fundraising for each $100 of cash donations it received.”

Charity Navigator

Charity Navigator says it has rating information on 1.6 million nonprofits registered in the United States. That said, the site rates only charities that have generated at least $1 million in revenue for two consecutive years.

The site does a great job of rating large nonprofit organizations on how sustainable they are and for transparency.

Does it cost for donors to use Charity Navigator? No.

How they rate charities: Charity Navigator uses an overall score and star rating to rate charities. The ratings address two main categories:

  • Financial health: Charity Navigator weighs the financial information found on charities’ tax returns (IRS Form 990) against seven performance metrics to come up with a score (0 to 10)  assessing solvency, efficiency, capacity and more.
  • Accountability and transparency: In addition to analyzing tax returns, Charity Navigator reviews charities’ websites to see if the sites make it easy for donors to find important information.

4. Avoid Red Flags

Consumer Reports says that when doing your research, you should be able to see at least three things on a nonprofit organization’s website:

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  • Its mission
  • A list of the board of directors
  • The latest financial reports
If you can’t find those items on a charity’s website, it may have some transparency issues.

Clark says to remember these three things:

1. Make sure you have the organization’s name correct. Many fake operations will use a name very similar to a reputable nonprofit’s. If you’re off by one letter or word, you could get scammed!

2. Avoid phone solicitations. “Never give money over the phone or on a street corner,” Clark says. “If someone calls you to solicit you, tell them, ‘Send me literature on your organization first, so I can look it over at my leisure.'”

3. Resist high-pressure sales tactics. Clark says if someone presses you to make an instant decision, the answer should be “no.”

“You worked hard for your money and you’ve got to make sure it’s going where you really want it to go.”

What to Do If You Get Scammed

If you do happen to fall for a charity scam, it’s important that you know you do have some recourse.

You can report a charity scam to FTC.gov/complaint. You can also file a complaint with your state charity regulator and the National Fraud Information Center at Fraud.org.

When you call to report such a scam, make sure you share these bits of basic information:

  • Organization/fundraiser name
  • Phone number
  • What the fundraiser told you

Final Thoughts

It’s easier now than ever to investigate an organization to see if it’s as effective and honest as it may seem. As a recap, here are the four steps to help you choose the best charities to give to:

  1. Decide what you’re passionate about
  2. Find a charity that matches your passion
  3. Research the organization before you give
  4. Avoid red flags

If you complete all these steps, you can gain peace of mind knowing more about where your money is going — whether it’s an amount large or small.

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In the end, giving is not about how big your bank account is but about how big your heart is.

If you have other favorite ways to give back, let us know in the comments below!

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