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How to Give Wisely and Well

Giving to charity has never been easier. You can donate the old-fashioned way--by mail--but you can also donate online, by text, or through social networking sites. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, over 1.4 million nonprofit organizations are registered with the IRS. With so many charities to choose from, it's more important than ever to ensure that your donation is well spent. Here are some tips that can help you become both a generous and wise donor.

Choose your charities

Choosing worthy organizations that support the causes you care about can be tricky, but it doesn't have to be time-consuming. There are several well-known organizations that rate and review charities, and provide useful tips and information that can help you make wise choices when giving to charity (see end of article). To get you started, here are some questions to ask:

  • How will your gift be used? It should be easy to get information about the charity's mission, accomplishments, financial status, and future growth by contacting the charity by phone or viewing online information.
  • How much does the charity spend on administrative costs? Charities with higher-than-average administrative costs may be spending less on programs and services than they should, or may even be in serious financial trouble. Some charities who use for-profit telemarketers get very little of the money they raise, so ask how much of your donation the charity will receive.
  • Is the charity legitimate? Ask for identification when approached by a solicitor, and never give out your Social Security number, credit card number, bank account number, account password, or personal information over the phone or in response to an e-mail you didn't initiate. There's no rush--take time to check out the charity before you donate.
  • How much can you afford to give? Stick to your giving goals, and learn to say no. Legitimate fundraisers will not try to make you feel guilty, and will be happy to send you information that can help you make an informed decision rather than pressure you to give now.

Harness the power of matching gifts

Many employers offer matching gift programs that will match charitable gifts made by their employees. You'll need to meet certain guidelines--for example, your employer may only match your gift up to a certain dollar limit--and the charity may need to provide information. Check with your employer's human resources department or the charity to find out how you can maximize your donations through a matching gift program.

Put your gifts on autopilot

If you're looking for an easy way to donate regularly to a favorite charity, look into setting up automatic donations from a financial account. When donors contribute automatically, the charity benefits by potentially lowering fundraising costs and by establishing a foundation of regular donors. And you'll benefit too, because spreading out your donations throughout the year may enable you to give more, and will simplify your record keeping.

Look for new ways to give

Although cash donations are always welcome, charities also encourage other types of gifts. For example, if you meet certain requirements, you may be able to give stock, direct gifts from your IRA or other retirement account, real estate, or personal property (but check with your financial professional to assess potential income and estate tax consequences based on your individual circumstances). You can also volunteer your time, using your talents to improve the lives of others in your community. And taking a "volunteer vacation" can be a fun way to involve your family and meet other people across the country or world who share your enthusiasm for a particular cause.

Use planned giving to leave a legacy

You can leave an enduring gift through your estate. For example, you might leave a will bequest, give life insurance, or use a charitable gift annuity, charitable remainder annuity trust, or charitable unitrust that may help you give away the asset now, while retaining a lifetime interest--check with your financial or tax professional regarding any potential estate or tax benefits or consequences.

Keep good records

If you itemize when you file your taxes, you can deduct donations you've made to a tax-qualified charity, but you may need documentation. Keep copies of cancelled checks, bank statements, credit card statements, or receipts from the charity showing the charity's name and the date and amount of the contribution. For donations or contributions of $250 or more, you'll need a more detailed written acknowledgment from the charity. For more information and a list of requirements, see IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions.

These are a few of the organizations and agencies that publish reports and charity ratings, and/or give useful tips and information to consumers on choosing a charity and giving wisely: