Even when so-called charities aren't outright scams, it's tough to know whether your donations are getting through to the cause for which they were intended. This, however, is no reason to stop giving. Just give a little smarter. Follow these steps for making sure any charity you choose to donate to is legitimate.
Check charities that solicit nationally on the National Charity Reports Index. The index checks charities against its 20 "Standards for Charitable Accountability." If a charity doesn't comply with these standards, the specific discrepancies are listed on the website. Note that the index doesn't check local charities.
Buy the "Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report" put out by the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP). This guide gives detailed information on how over 500 national charities spend donations. If you have a particular charity in mind, go to the AIP's website to see if it's listed in the guide before you bother buying it.
Go to Guidestar online and do a free search for the charity. Guidestar lists over 700,000 nonprofit organizations, informs as to whether contributions are tax deductible. For some charities, printable versions of their Form 990 are available.
Visit your local Better Business Bureau website for information on regional charities. Just type in your ZIP code to get to the local office.
Look for charities that can tell you specifically where your donation will go if you still want to give and Steps 1 to 3 were inconclusive.