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An illustration of a gift bow tied around a stack of money.
An illustration of a gift bow tied around a stack of money.
An illustration of a gift bow tied around a stack of money.

Published December 14, 2016.
Updated August 15, 2019.

First question: What matters most to you?

When it comes to giving to charity, Americans have many choices — more than 1.5 million charitable organizations in the U.S., according to the National Philanthropic Trust.

How can you choose a charity from among the many doing worthy work — while also making sure your contribution makes a difference that matters to you? Ask these questions before you donate.

What's most important to you?

Are you passionate about literacy? Cancer prevention? After deciding what's most important to you, consider more specifically what you want your dollars to do: Help breast cancer researchers, for example, or provide free mammograms? Find an organization whose mission aligns with your values.

Did someone ask you for money over the phone?

If a telemarketer piques your interest in a charity, research the organization before you give directly to it — reducing the risk of being scammed while ensuring your entire gift goes to the charity rather than a fund-raising company.

Is someone pressuring you to give right away, or donate in cash or by wire transfer?

If so, end the conversation. You need time to consider whether this gift is right for you — and to investigate the organization doing the asking. Also, reputable charities don't use pressure tactics to solicit gifts. And cash and wire-transfer requests are signs of a scam.

Transparent organizations make it easy to study their finances.

What's that name again?

Don't be tricked by familiar-sounding names. Disabled American Veterans is a legitimate organization. The United States Disabled Veterans, on the other hand, once landed on watchdog group Charity Navigator's "high concern" list.

Is the charity legitimate?

Check the GuideStar or Charity Navigator websites to tell whether the charity you're considering is a tax-exempt organization or falls short of IRS criteria.

Does the organization operate in the light of day?

Transparent organizations — operating openly, communicating honestly, and demonstrating accountability — are less likely to make decisions that make them look bad. And they make it easy to study their finances.

Do the organization's finances hold up?

If a charity isn't handling its own money well, it won't do a great job with yours. Charities do have day-to-day expenses, so if an organization claims 0% overhead, be skeptical. However, Charity Navigator says a charity that spends at least 75% of its budget on services is generally in good shape. It also should have some savings.

You'll get a good overview of a charity's finances by asking to see three years' worth of its IRS Form 990. You also can find an organization's 990s using websites such as ProPublica (go to projects.propublica.org/nonprofits).



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