During the “thankful season,” our hearts and minds typically turn to helping others. Though many people assume that corporations are the biggest contributors to charity in the United States, the truth is two-thirds of charitable contributions come from individuals, according to Charity Navigator.

But smart donors want to make sure their holiday charitable giving is going where it’ll do the most good. Here are 3 tips to make your giving as wise as it is generous.

1. Choose a cause you’re passionate about

Think about a need you’d like to help support. Sometimes it’s even fun to get the whole family involved to find out which causes might interest everyone.

Then identify some related causes in order to start your preliminary research. Remember to think both big (like a national charity) and small (a local program that brings art to sick children, for example). Both types are worthy. The larger organization might have more fundraising power, but it can also be gratifying to support a local charity and see the good work they’re doing in your own backyard.

2. Do your due diligence

We like to think that the “nonprofit” status indicates that the group is above reproach, spending your donation where it can do the most good. Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy to become an IRS-approved 501(c)(3) group.

That’s why savvy donors do some research to make sure the charity is all it purports to be. You can research and compare charities on sites like Charity Navigator, Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy, or GuideStar.

Charity Navigator recommends that you investigate 3 components of a charity: its financial health, its accountability and transparency policies, and its results. Each charity files an annual Form 990 (except super small charities that received $25,000 or less) where you can find most of that information. Do remember that religious organizations, like churches and synagogues, are not required to file a Form 990, but their website should supply the majority of the information you need.

One measure to look at is how much they spend on overhead and fundraising. Don’t immediately discount a charity that has a large line item for those costs, as long as the percentages look good (meaning the bulk goes to education or research). Large, well-known charities typically attract seasoned CEOs and other executives who are paid commensurate with their education and experience, and many times it’s exactly that expertise that’s guiding the nonprofit to do even more with their dollars. On the other hand, you may want to look twice at groups that seem to spend an awful lot of money on travel or ineffective fundraising.

Another thing to watch out for is “sound-alike” charities. These are groups that have a name that’s very similar to a well-known charity, but might be trading on that name recognition to collect money without intending to put it to good use.

3. Give your time

Sometimes families are better equipped to make their holiday charitable giving consist of time rather than money, and that’s certainly welcomed by organizations. The holiday season offers the ideal ambiance to volunteer together, whether sorting food at a food bank, wrapping gifts for kids, or even bell ringing at the mall. Contact your local charity of choice to see what opportunities they have and revel in spending worthwhile time together.

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about Cathie

Cathie Ericson writes about personal finance, real estate, health, lifestyle, and business topics. When she's not writing she loves to read, hike, and run. Find her @CathieEricson.