The holidays have arrived, and that means Salvation Army bell ringers will be making appearances outside stores across the United States, just one of hundreds of organizations hoping to tap into your generosity for contributions.
The average American household donates nearly $3,000 a year, according to The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
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.
Following are six tips to making smart charitable donations.
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 feel moved 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.
Charity scams can be big business for rip-off artists who prey on the good intentions of others. 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 Give.org, which is run by the Better Business Bureau. All three are dedicated to vetting nonprofits.
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 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 of 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 heartstrings, 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 make it to the organization in question. A 2013 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 or on our Facebook page who you support and why they get your money.