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Giving to charity doesn't always mean that those in need will be on the receiving end of that money.
The average American donates about $2,500 a year to charity, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Households earning more than $200,000 a year give much more—roughly $14,000. But if you don't give wisely, not much of that money may make it to those in need.
With an uncertain economy, experts say charities could feel the pinch this year. A recent survey of 88 groups by The Chronicle of Philanthropy forecast a 1 percent drop in donations. (Last year, donations to the 400 largest nonprofits saw a 4 percent increase, they report.)
"I think it's going to be a flat year," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator. Early indications from donors are that they plan to give at about the same levels as last year, she said.
Whether you can afford to give a little or a lot, maximize your donation by picking the right charity. Check out ratings from sites such as the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance and CharityNavigator.org. They evaluate groups on standards including financial stability and governing practices. That way, you'll know a particular charity is legit, and that it's making an impact.
"You want to look for a charity that is financially sound and putting most of its money into its programs, not telemarketing firms," Miniutti said.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter