Many people give reactively, such as when a friend asks for support for a charity. Others may receive a request from an organization they know. Still others donate to their congregation or other religious institution because they feel a strong connection. But those organizations may not be spending your money the way you want.
There is also the risk that if you are giving online, you may not actually be sending money to the right place. "If you are online looking for a place to give, if you mistype, there are similar sites with similar names," said Bill Kowalski, director of operations at Rehmann Corporate Investigative Services, part of Rehmann Financial Advisors.
Not all those charities are fraudulent, Kowalski said. But even so, they may misuse your money. "We saw this after 9/11. Some charities cropped up and gave 5 percent to actual victims. In my mind, that's a fraud."
Still, donors do have ways to check on even small, local organizations.
"Often, the people you know who serve on charity boards might know some things that are the most important," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Alternatively, "you can look at their financial information online, and ask them if they are getting results and how they know."
Another option is to look at rating sites such as Charity Navigator, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, or CharityWatch. These groups provide easily comparable measures of financial efficiency, like the percentage of money spent on programs, administration and fundraising.