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Finding the best charity for you and your hard-earned cash

By Jenniffer Weigel, Chicago Tribune

Whether you’re passionate about saving the whales or want to feed the homeless, deciding which cause should receive your hard-earned money this holiday season can be a tough call.

“You have to figure out where your philanthropic passions are,” said Sandra Miniutti, vice president for the charity evaluation service Charity Navigator ( “There are more than 1 million charities in America today. Even looking at an issue such as breast cancer — there are more than 1,000 charities just for that. Once you narrow your search down to a couple of causes, take a closer look at the charities.”

Miniutti said every charity is required to fill out a 990 form, which is an annual reporting return that certain federally tax-exempt organizations must file with the IRS. It provides information on the filing organization’s mission, programs and finances, and must be made public.

“People need to find out how much of the charity’s budget is spent on mission versus the overhead costs,” she said. “We have over 5,500 ratings of charities on our site, and the 990 forms are used in that rating process. I also urge people to find out how committed the charity is to being accountable and transparent, and to do some digging into their ethical behavior.”

If you’re still having a tough time making a choice after you’ve done your research, Miniutti suggests picking up the phone and making a call. “You’re looking for something more than a heartwarming story,” she said.

“You want details on what they have accomplished.”

Here are more tips from Miniutti:

Volunteer. “Spending time with a charity — and seeing how it’s run from the inside — is the best way to see if that organization could be something you’d like to support,” she said. “And when you develop personal relationships with the staff of a charity, or even get to meet some of the recipients of your donations, that can make the whole experience more rewarding than just writing a check.”

Don’t donate over the phone. “Often those charities that solicit over the phone keep as much as 95 percent per dollar,” she said. “Even if you like the pitch you’re hearing, it’s best to hang up.”

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If they say they give 100 percent to the cause, be skeptical, she said. “They have to pay for things like keeping the lights on. There are some legitimate costs that go into running a charity.”

Younger isn’t better. Miniutti’s group doesn’t rate charities until they’re at least 4 years old. “It takes time to get recognized and build up your reputation,” she said. “If they don’t have stationary, I don’t think these are the best investment. Give them time to get established.”

Consider a gift card. “There are ‘good cards’ now which allow you to load money onto a card and the recipient can select the charity to receive the value of the card,” Miniutti said. “This way, you don’t run the risk of offending someone by donating to something that doesn’t match their beliefs.” “Good cards” can be purchased at (There is a $5 handling fee per card.)

©2011 the Chicago Tribune

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