Before you donate, check up on the charity

Charity, food drive, giving
Camille Tokerud | Getty Images

Comparison shopping isn't just a key strategy for holiday purchases. If charitable donations are a part of your budget, it pays to do the same due diligence.

"People unfortunately tend to not do much in the way of research," said Daniel Borochoff, president of evaluator site CharityWatch.org. "I would strongly encourage them to, because they can exponentially improve the effectiveness of their giving."

The average household donated $2,974 to charity last year, according to the Giving USA report. Giving often picks up at the end of the year, both from consumers swept up in the holiday spirit and those looking to cut their tax bill.

#GivingTuesday, a movement to create a day of giving in the shopping-heavy week after Thanksgiving, raised $116.7 million last year. And nonprofit rating site Charity Navigator reports more than half of donations made through its site last November and December occurred during the last five days of the calendar year. Almost a quarter came in on New Year's Eve.

"It can't be understated, the tax benefits and how much that motivates people," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president for Charity Navigator.

Here's how to make the most of your donation:

Have a plan

"It's important to be a proactive — rather than a reactive — giver," Miniutti said.

You're likely to field plenty of requests for donations throughout the holiday season — at the register while shopping, from friends on social media and telemarketing calls. Set a budget and prioritize which causes or groups are most important to you, Miniutti said.

A donation strategy can also help you avoid missteps of a spontaneous pledge. Instead of giving spontaneously, take time to look into the cause and the nonprofit to make sure they fit your goals, she said.

"It could be they've used an expensive telemarking firm to make that call, or it could be an outright scam," she said.


Check into the charity

Look to see how a group stacks up at rating sites like CharityWatch.org, CharityNavigator.org or the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. Those sites assess criteria such as how transparent a nonprofit is about its finances and how much of its budget goes toward programs. The less it spends to raise money, the better.

"We do think charities should spend 35 percent or less on fundraising," said Borochoff. "The better groups spend 25 percent or less."

Make sure you're looking at the right nonprofit. Some poorly rated groups have names similar to those of highly rated ones, he said.


Donate efficiently

Donors looking to maximize tax savings could benefit from strategies like donating appreciated stock or part of a required minimum distribution from a retirement account. Be aware of fees that cut into your donation — telemarketers get a share of phone pledges, for example, while credit card processing fees eat into web donations.

Don't click on shortened links for charitable campaigns on social media or in email, said Miniutti. Those could bring you to a site intended to steal your data or trigger a malicious download. Instead, head directly to the nonprofit's site to make that donation.

"You still want to take a breath and do your research," she said.