How to make the most of your charitable donations

Some Web charities let you connect with the people who will benefit directly from your donation, while others allow you to vet a charity before you contribute to ensure your gift is really going to the people who need it.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

They call this the Giving Season, but there is no right or wrong time to help our neighbors in need, whatever corner of the world they call home.

Our hearts are heavy this holiday. There is no comprehending last Friday's tragedy in Connecticut. In our sorrow we reach out to the people who are suffering. These sites are dedicated to ensuring our contributions do as much good as possible.

Meet the students and teachers who benefit from your school donation
Sometimes what appears to be a meager contribution can make a big difference in a student's life. That's the philosophy behind DonorsChoose.org, which was created in 2000 by Charles Best, a social-studies teacher in the Bronx who was looking for ways to supply his classroom with the basics.

Teachers create an account on the site and submit a project proposal that explains what they need and why they need it. They can interact with donors, and once their funding goal is reached, DonorsChoose.org ships the requested material directly to the school. The teachers and students then send thank-you notes to the project donors.

Donors can select projects by urgent need (highest poverty and closest to finish line), by class subject, or by school location. Match offers are listed for dozens of school districts. You can also browse projects by school type, teacher affiliation, and grade level, among other options.

DonorsChoose.org project descriptions
Teachers describe the school supplies their class needs and why they need them on DonorsChoose.org. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

DonorsChoose.org offers to pick a project for you, but I preferred using the site's location-search feature that hooked me up with dozens of classrooms in need here in my home town. The plea for "Technology, Please!" caught my eye. Here's Mrs. McGreevy's description of her young, underprivileged students:

My students know that education is the key to their future success. They are bright little sponges who light up my room when they enter it.

Mrs. McGreevy's students are now a few dollars closer to their purchase of "a document camera and laser pen for presentations, whiteboard markers, classroom organizers, and cleaning products." DonorsChoose.org itemizes and verifies the project funding, lists the number of projects the teacher has funded, and rates the teacher's thank-you punctuality.

DonorsChoose.org project details
Each project submitted by a teacher to DonorsChoose.org is verified and its expenses itemized by the site. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

By default, your donation includes an optional 15 percent donation to DonorsChoose.org. You can increase or decrease the percentage of your donation that the site retains, or set the site's percentage at zero to ensure the project receives your total contribution. After you make your donation you're prompted to send the class a message. You're also given the opportunity to post news of your donation to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or via e-mail by granting the site access to your address book.

Donations of $50 or more qualify donors to receive thank-you letters from students, although they can opt out of receiving the letters if they wish. You can track to progress of the projects you donate to, sign up for employer matching gifts, and use "match codes" to double your contributions made via credit card, PayPal, or Amazon Payments (with restrictions).

Find out how charitable that charity really is
When we are in a giving mood, our defenses may be down. To make sure our donations do as much good as possible, we owe it to the people in need to verify the organizations receiving our contributions. Two sites that help in vetting charities are Charity Navigator and CharityWatch.org..

Enter the name of a charity in the search box at Charity Navigator to view an overall star rating of the organization and ratings of its financial standing and accountability/transparency. The listing for each charity includes a numerical score from 0 to 70, the group's top executives, and its recent financial statement, among other information.

Charity Navigator ratings page for UNCF
Charity Navigator rates the financial standing, accountability, and transparency of charities, along with descriptions and contact information. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Charity Navigator's ratings include charts showing the percentage of contributions spent by the charity for administration and fundraising, and a comparison of the organization with other groups performing similar work. If you're uncertain of which charity to donate to, browse the site's lists of top ten charities in such categories as most popular, celebrity-related, expanding in a hurry, and in deep financial trouble.

CharityWatch.org was founded in 1992 as the American Institute of Philanthropy. The group describes itself as a nonprofit charity watchdog and information service whose goal is "to maximize the effectiveness of every dollar contributed to charity by providing donors with the information they need to make more informed giving decisions."

The site offers tips for safe online donations that include verifying a charity's tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, protecting your privacy, and avoiding charity scams. The site also lists top-rated charities in such categories as human rights, hunger, literacy, child protection, and gun control (ahem).

Leveraging the crowd for a cause
Like many Web success stories, the Crowdrise service began modestly as an effort to raise funds at the 2009 New York City Marathon for the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. The site lets you start your own fundraising campaign or join one created by someone else. Use your project page to solicit donations from your friends and colleagues via Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail.

The Crowdrise concept is intended to make giving fun. When you create a fundraiser, you select a category (organized event, emergency relief, volunteer project, etc.), give the fundraiser a name, select a URL, enter a description and funding goal, upload a photo (optional), select an IRS-approved charity (optional), and provide your name, e-mail address, password, and birthday. U.S.-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations can "claim" their charities for Crowdrise fundraising.

In addition to donating to a project, charity, or team, Crowdrise lists celebrity fundraisers and lets you search for a friend's fundraiser. When you sign up for the Crowdrise Rewards program, you accumulate points for giving or fundraising that you can redeem for charitable causes or for tees, hats, and hoodies. Donating to one of Crowdrise's featured charities gets you double the points. Top volunteers are awarded titles, so when you reach 100,000 points you become a "Doctor," while those reaching 1,000,000 points are dubbed "Sir" or "Madam."

Charities helping charities
If your employer offers to match your charitable contributions, you owe it to your favorite charities to take advantage of the program. To ensure that as many charities as possible can participate in employer-match donations, the Local Independent Charities of America was created as an offshoot of the U.S. government's Combined Federal Campaign, an annual employee fund drive.

The group now participates in fund drives conducted by state and municipal agencies, businesses, and United Way chapters. Charities can sign up for the LIC's GiveDirect program for accepting and processing online donations. The organization also provides a Charity Search feature that lets you find charities by type and state.

The Better Business Bureau's BBB Wise Giving Alliance features a National Charity Report Index that provides information on hundreds of charities and rates them for governance, effectiveness, finances, and fundraising. The site also lets you inquire about a charity or file a complaint against a charity.

Nonprofits can apply to participate in the BBB's Charity Seal Program, which requires that they sign a license agreement and pay a fee based on a sliding scale. The Wise Giving Program provides an extensive description of its Standards for Charity Accountability.

If you're ready to give now but aren't sure who you want to receive your donation, a charitable trust fund such as Fidelity Charitable offers to invest your donation so it grows while you make up your mind about the recipient. Opening a Giving Account with Fidelity Charitable requires a minimum gift of $5,000.

The independent charity's Pooled Income Fund is intended to combine the tax benefits of charitable donations with the ability to make lifetime payments to as many as two beneficiaries, one of whom may be the donor. When the last beneficiary dies, the fund amount is donated to the donor's choice of "recommended"charities.

Participating in the Pooled Income Fund requires an initial contribution of at least $20,000 and annual contributions of at least $5,000. While Fidelity Charitable's administrative fees appear to be modest, anyone investing large sums in a charitable trust will likely benefit from an in-person meeting with a professional financial adviser/estate planner. (Note that Fidelity Charitable offers a toll-free telephone support number.)