Americans donated more than $350 billion to charities last year. Here's advice from Consumer Reports to make sure your donations go to worthwhile charities.
With more than a million charities and countless causes to choose from, deciding where to donate your hard-earned dollars can be tricky.
While the vast majority of charities provide real aid, scam artists won't hesitate to profit from your good intentions. Last Spring, the Cancer Fund of America and three affiliate organizations were charged with defrauding donors of 187 million dollars.
Consumer Reports' Margot Gilman says you really have to do your homework.
"Organizations can spend as much on marketing and overhead as on actually helping people," Gilman said.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to research charities. Online resources like Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and Give-dot-org from the Better Business Bureau evaluate groups on their costs and effectiveness, and provide easy-to-understand ratings.
In general, they suggest staying away from charities that spend more than 30 to 40 percent of their budget on fundraising.
If you'd like to learn more about an organization, consider volunteering first to get to know the group. If you are a repeat donor, look at the returns on last year's contribution: What did the charity accomplish with gifts like yours?
And Consumer Reports says to be careful of look-alike charities.
"It's important to look at organizations whose names and logos look a lot like those of more respected charities," Gilman said. "They're preying on your confusion."
For example, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society spends about three-quarters of its budget on charitable programs, according to Charity Watch. The Childhood Leukemia Foundation spends one-quarter of its budget on charitable programs.
Finally, be wary of telemarketing calls, especially high-pressure or overly emotional appeals. Legitimate charities will be just as happy to receive your contribution after you've hung up and checked out the charity.
For more information, visit Consumer Reports' websites on charity scams and best-and-worst charities.
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Consumer Reports: Smart charitable giving