With the world facing so many challenges these days, it's never been more important to give back—either through making donations or giving your time.

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The ritual of giving and receiving gifts is a major part of the holiday season, but donating to those less fortunate should also be a part of your family's seasonal traditions—if it isn't already. Volunteering your time and donating money to favorite causes, or purchasing gifts from retailers that give a portion of proceeds to worthy causes, are all ways to do a little more good in a world faced with so many complex problems.

While you might typically take a family outing to volunteer at a food bank or other community organization, lingering Covid-19 restrictions may still prevent you from doing your usual in-person volunteering this season. But the good news is you can donate to almost any organization online these days, and there are plenty of ways to volunteer from home.

Here is how to ensure your efforts are going to a legitimate cause, and a few ways to donate that don't involve cash—if giving money is not in your budget this season.

red bucket money donation
Credit: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

How to make sure your donation goes where it should.

No matter if you're donating $5 or $500, it pays to do your homework. Here are some tips for identifying and vetting the organizations you're considering giving money to.

As giving is an extremely personal process, many donors find organizations through personal experiences or recommendations from family and friends. You may also see testimonials from your loved ones on social media. No matter which way you come across an organization, the important thing is doing your research to confirm the organization uses financial gifts effectively, says Kevin Scally, of Charity Navigator, an independent non-profit evaluation platform.

You might want to start by confirming that the organization is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit. (As a side note, these are the only organizations where donations are tax-deductible.) In addition, you should look for important trust indicators. For instance, Charity Navigator gives non-profit organizations star ratings based on two metrics: financial health, and also accountability/transparency. 

Additionally, there are other places donors can look for information, such as BBB Wise Giving Alliance and GreatNonprofits.

"Most nonprofits make their financials available on their websites," says Scally. "At times these are rendered in an easy-to-read pie chart so that donors can see what portion of their donation goes toward programs. The nonprofits should also provide visibility into how the nonprofit operates: Are they an advocacy organization? Do they provide direct services? Do donations fund research? Legitimate organizations should make the answer to these questions very clear."

Donate to research and social services.

You'll do the most good by splitting contributions between organizations that fund research, support advocacy, and directly benefit people impacted by an issue, says Daniel Borochoff, the founder and former president of CharityWatch "For example, you could give to CancerCare, which supports anyone affected by cancer, and to the Cancer Research Institute. Both are highly rated groups."

Screen out phone solicitations.

It's expensive for charities to hire telemarketers to call you and ask for money. Your dollars might better serve these groups if you give directly to the charity of your choice, not the one that slipped past your usual call screening. Borochoff also notes that with cold calls, most money typically goes to fund-raising expenses rather than the cause.

Limit impulse giving.

Making an informed decision puts more power behind your cash. Want to help end food insecurity? Reach out to a local food bank. Looking to support the fight against heart disease? Ask a doctor or social worker for reputable charities. "Talk to people who know the ins and outs of the cause so you can make sure your money is going to the best place," Borochoff says.

Find proof the money is helping.

The more details you can find about a charity's efforts and spending (on its website and social media posts or via independent organizations like CharityNavigator and CharityWatch), the better. This info is especially important when helping with the aftermath of a natural disaster. Look for groups that have people on the ground; that means they have the contacts to give immediate help.

Creative ways to donate time.

While you may not be able to volunteer in person this year (amid Delta variant concerns), local organizations still need your help.

  • At food banks and shelters: Cooking and serving meals in person may be off the proverbial table at some food banks and shelters, but these organizations are still overwhelmed by the need caused by the pandemic. Call them directly to find out how you can help amid the current circumstances. You might also add extra non-perishable groceries to your next shopping trip and coordinate a time to drop them off, or host an online fundraiser to coordinate a larger monetary donation so the shelters can buy necessary supplies.
  • At the firehouse: Firehouses typically organize toy drives during the holidays, but they may need help getting the word out. Coordinate a drive-by toy drive in your neighborhood, or an in-person drop box at your local church or other organization. Don't forget to put up flyers to let your neighbors know when and where to drop off their donations.
  • Around town: Your chamber of commerce can give ideas, but consider socially-distant acts of service such shoveling driveways, making no-contact deliveries to the elderly, or picking up litter at a local park.

How to buy a gift that gives back.

  • Which specific charities they donate to. (It's not enough to say "underprivileged youth." If they're donating proceeds from your purchase, they should tell you exactly where the money is going.)
  • How much they donate per item purchased. (Look for actual percentages of each sale rather than "a portion of the proceeds.")
  • Their total contributions to date.

How to spot a fake charity.

It's important to understand that fraudulent groups may try to fool you with similar names (Red Cross of Americas instead of the American Red Cross, for example). It's easy to get confused, and the more emotional the cause, the more susceptible you may be.

"Be particularly careful when giving to groups that appeal to your heartstrings," Borochoff says.

Checking that an organization has a professional website and a U.S.-based telephone number is always a good practice as well, adds Scally, of CharityNavigator.

"Though many sophisticated scammers will have professional-looking websites created and telephone numbers attached to call centers here in the U.S. even when they're overseas," cautions Scally. "Legitimate 501(c)(3) charities should be filing a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. If they have not done so, for example, if the organization was something recently formed, err on the side of caution."

Again, you can check with organizations like CharityNavigator to confirm a non-profit's legitimacy. You can also double-check a non-profit is on the up and up by using Give.org and via Guidestar.org.

Family-Friendly Volunteering Ideas

Kids experience the true meaning of giving back when participating in these activities. Start a family volunteering tradition by having each family member pick a cause to donate time to as a family during the year.

Collect items for an animal shelter.

There are usually age restrictions around volunteering at shelters, but kids can still help furry friends. Let them gather and drop off worn rugs, blankets, towels, and other items used for bedding.

Brighten a patient's day.

Parents of crafty kids, take note: Many hospitals, nursing homes, and adult-care facilities accept homemade items such as fleece blankets, scarves, and hats. Call the facilities in your area to find out what they need and accept (and how to drop off the items in a safe way). Of course, cards with holiday well-wishes are always a welcome treat.

Plant a garden.

You might need to wait until warmer weather, but keep this one in mind. Volunteering at a community garden has a triple benefit: It gets kids involved in giving back to their community, teaches about healthy foods, and is good exercise. Many community gardens donate some of their yield to food banks; start there to find a garden that needs volunteers.

Shop for angel tree items.

The tradition of the Angel tree is a sweet way to give to kids in your area who might not get toys or clothes for Christmas otherwise. If you're not in a place where you can actually purchase the gifts, you can still donate your time: Help sort and wrap the donations that come in, or volunteer to drive the gifts to each home.

Or if you're able to "adopt" a child from an angel tree, make it a family affair: Grab the child's wish list and head to the store. The kids will enjoy picking out toys and clothes to give the child (especially if they're similar ages), and you can explain why you're helping as you shop.

Help those impacted by a natural disaster from afar.

During the past few years, as climate change becomes an increasingly real problem, natural disasters have impacted a growing number of people around the globe. There are a number of charities focused on helping those whose lives have been upended by events such as the wildfires in California and Hurricane Ida in Louisiana.

"Many trustworthy nonprofits with a proven track record are providing relief and recovery to communities impacted. You don't need to be a wealthy philanthropist to help. Any donation will make a difference," says Scally.

CharityNavigator has put together lists of highly vetted organizations dedicated to providing relief to wildfire victims in the western United States as well as hurricane victims nationwide.

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