Story last updated at 11/25/2009 - 12:04 pm
Getting the most bang for your buck is a badge of honor these days, whether you're car shopping, choosing a college or just comparing loaves of bread. One area where you really don't want to misspend your hard-earned dollars is charitable donations.
There is no shortage of non-profit organizations competing for contributions, but quality and effectiveness vary significantly, so you should do a little research before donating your time or money. Here are a few suggestions:
Pick the right cause. Many people prefer to support organizations that champion issues close to their heart, whether it's feeding the hungry, environmental protection or working to cure a disease. Also consider whether you want to target local organizations or prefer to have a more national or global impact.
Familiarize yourself with their operations. Study the organization's website, annual report and mission statement. Speak to staff members or volunteers, or volunteer there yourself. Or, if you know someone who has used their services, ask for impressions of the organization's efficiency and client helpfulness.
Do your homework. In these tough times, many non-profits are experiencing increased demand for their services in the face of declining contributions and government funding. Avoid charities that spend heavily on salaries, advertising, fund-raising and other administrative expenses (sometimes misreported as "program development," "public education" or other euphemisms). Ideally, at least 75 percent of contributions should go directly to beneficiary programs.
Several online rating services can help with your research:
Charity Navigator (http://www.charitynavigator.org/) rates more than 5,400 large charities by financial strength and revenue spent on programs and services. They offer helpful "Top 10" lists and a well-structured "Tips and Resources" section. You can use their guidelines to formulate your own inquiries for smaller organizations not included in their ratings.
Guide Star (http://www2.guidestar.org/) rates more than 1.8 million IRS-recognized, tax-exempt organizations. Their basic search engine is free; or you can order more customized research for a fee. The site also features helpful questions to ask and tips for choosing a charity.
The Better Business Bureau (http://www.give.org/) rates whether organizations have met its standards of accountability, including ethical conduct and honest solicitation practices.
Be tax-smart. Although your kids' little league may be a worthy cause, be aware that only contributions made to organizations identified in IRS Publication 78 qualify for tax deductions. Visit http://www.irs.gov/charities/contributors/ for a link to a search engine of qualified charities, as well as information on how to report and substantiate charitable deductions and other helpful tips.
Be on fraud alert. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous people and organizations will take advantage of your desire to help others-if you let them. A few tips:
Ask for a copy of the organization's IRS Form 990, which details how contributions are spent.
Be suspicious of telemarketing and email solicitations. When in doubt, hang up and contact the organization yourself.
Be aware that scammers often choose names that are similar to those of legitimate organizations.
Never give out personal or credit card information unless you initiate the contact.
More people than ever need our charitable assistance. Just be sure you're contributing to organizations that can do the most good.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To sign up for a free monthly personal finance e-Newsletter, go to http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com/newsletter/.