12/22/2013 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2013

5 Holiday Giving Tips

John Rensten via Getty Images

It’s the season for opening up your hearts –- and wallets –- for causes that are dearest to you. But how can you give most effectively? The experts over at Charity Navigator have you covered. Here are five tips to make sure you give your donations to charities that will make sure your money reaches the right hands.

  • Think About The Long Term
    Getty Images
    Like investing, giving should be driven by long-term goals. Dropping some change in the bucket outside the mall isn't going to change the world. Responsible philanthropy is more sophisticated and requires that you define what you hope your giving accomplishes and then develop a plan to reach those goals. And when you implement your plan, don’t settle for organizations that aren’t an exact match for your philanthropic goals. Take at least a bit of time to find it and confirm (not just assume) the charity offers the programs and services that match your charitable aspirations.
  • Ensure The Charity Is Efficient, Ethical And Effective
    Before you give to any charity, be sure to check that the charity meets these three criteria. Fiscal Health: Financially healthy organizations – those that are both financially efficient and sustainable - have greater flexibility and freedom to pursue their charitable mission. Charity Navigator’s 0 to 4- star rating system includes a review of each charity’s fiscal performance.
    Accountable & Transparent: Generally speaking, charities that are accountable follow good governance practices and are therefore less likely to engage in unethical or irresponsible activities so, the risk that charities would misuse donations is lower than for charities that don't adopt such practices. In addition, an organization that is transparent will share its performance openly with the public. Therefore all stakeholders can investigate the details of the charity's work without having to struggle for access to the information. If a charity is doing good work, then it should have nothing to hide. As the saying goes, "sunlight is the best disinfectant!" Donors can access a review of each charity’s Accountability & Transparency via Charity Navigator’s free website.
    Results: Knowing what the charity has accomplished is a critical step; after all, the charity’s ability to bring about long lasting and meaningful change in the world is the key reason for their existence and what you want your donation to be used for. Charity Navigator has begun to provide a review of each charity’s results reporting, but this data will not impact any charity's rating until we have the data for all of the charities we rate. In the meantime, you can learn about a charity’s results by reviewing its website and/or talking with staff. They should be able to tell you more than just the number of activities or people served and speak to the quality and depth of their results (for example, not just whether someone got a job but for how long) as well as their capacity to continue to get these results.
  • Help Charities Squeezed By The Federal Government Shutdown
    Federal, state and local government agencies regularly pay charities late and typically fail to pay the full cost of the services the charity provides. Many of these charities were already near the breaking point in having to scale up to help people in the aftermath of the Great Recession.The shutdown only exacerbated the issues and further stressed charities that depend on government funding – such as those in the arts and human services. This year, consider a gift to these charities to help them with their cash flow and to enable them to continue to meet the need for their services.
  • Be Wary Of Crowdfunding Sites
    Over the past year, especially immediately following a disaster or tragedy when legitimate charities haven't yet determined their planned charitable response, crowdfunding sites have stepped in as an alternative way to give. But don't be fooled by the glossy appearance of these sites with compelling videos and storytelling. With little to no vetting going on by these platforms, they are a very risky way to donate. Even if the messaging on a fund indicates that it will be used for a charitable purpose, there is nothing preventing the solicitor from using the money for a lavish vacation or a new sports car.
  • Give Online In One Place
    No one likes to think about taxes, especially during the holidays. But if you want to deduct your charitable contributions on your 2013 tax return, you have until December 31st to make your donations. When you give online at Charity Navigator, through our partnership with Network for Good, you have the luxury of waiting until the last minute, knowing that not only will you be provided an instant receipt, but your giving records are maintained in one place, making your life easier at tax time and when you want to give again. (Please remember that Charity Navigator is a charity too, charges nothing to either users of the site or the charities we evaluate, and relies on your voluntary support for the largest share of our budget!)