12/01/2011 01:59 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

Do's and Don'ts of Holiday Giving

December is a busy time of year with many charitable requests for your time or money. The following advice will ensure your time and money does the good you intended.

Don't get scammed by a fake website
Unfortunately, unscrupulous people have learned to mimic nonprofit websites and advertising campaigns. To avoid being scammed, here are a few precautions:

  • Never click through to an organization from a link sent to you -- this could be a link to a fake website.
  • Google the EXACT name of the charity to ensure you're on their real website.
  • For lesser known charities, look for evidence on the web that they exist. Most real charities will leave an electronic trail of meeting minutes, newspaper articles, or mentions by other organizations.
  • If donating by mail, verify the address on the website.

Do avoid stand alone projects
Activities such as distributing toys, feeding the hungry, or helping the homeless should be coordinated with long-term programs. Without coordination, your time and donation could be wasted. A homeless man explained the problem well in the NPR article Advice from a Homeless Man:

"In a 2-hour span," Sheptock wrote, "no less than 6 groups of do-gooders came through the park feeding the homeless. After the 3rd or 4th group, I began to tell people, 'No more. I can't eat anymore' and ask them if they were trying to stuff me like a turkey."... "but come Jan. 2, they'll be hungry again, especially on weekends when it's hard to find food."

The problem isn't just with food, there are issues with the delivery of clothing, toys, or sleeping bags too.

Don't send donated goods overseas
Many charities encourage donors to send Christmas presents to children in developing countries. Unfortunately, sending goods overseas is generally not the best way to help. Donated goods are often inappropriate for the local climate, religion, or way of life. In addition, it costs more to ship the goods than to purchase them locally. Buying goods in the local marketplace boosts the local economy, helping more people than just that one child.

Do check with local nonprofits before taking up a collection of donated goods
Before you start a clothes, book, or shoe drive, check with the charity you want to support. Never assume they'll accept your donations. Find out what goods are most needed. What sizes, styles, and amounts are requested. You may be surprised by what you find.

Don't feel pressured to give
Being a good donor means evaluating a charity before donating. Giving at the cash register or when called at home rewards those charities with the most aggressive fundraising campaigns, not the ones that do the best job. Ask for a brochure and take the time you need before deciding. If they don't give you the information you request -- don't donate. The people that approach you in the mall or on the phone (called chuggers for charity muggers) generally work for a middleman and keep a large percentage of the amount you donate. Giving via the charity's website ensures they receive your full donation.

Do keep volunteer opportunities in perspective
It takes a great deal of time and effort to plan and supervise large volunteer events. Often it's faster and easier for staff to do the work themselves. These events are often held for positive PR, as a fundraising activity, or as an awareness raising or educational event. If the volunteer opportunity interests you, go ahead and participate. Just keep in perspective how much you're actually "giving back."

Do consider donating or volunteering throughout the year
People's needs do not end with the holidays. If your goal is to teach your child to be charitable, there are many opportunities throughout the year to volunteer or donate to good causes. The best volunteers are the long-term ones that can be counted on day to day. If you're willing to donate your professional skills, even better. Nonprofits struggle to pay for professional assistance as this is considered "overheads" and is frowned upon by donors.

For more in-depth information on giving during the holidays, read Good Intentions' Holiday Guide to Charitable Giving.