Let us give you a little help in figuring out how to do the most good with your time and money—and donate both in meaningful ways.

By Melanie Mannarino
October 30, 2019

The ritual of giving and receiving gifts is a major part of the holiday season, and it's not going away any time soon. However, donating to those less fortunate should also be a part of your family's seasonal traditions if it isn't already. Volunteering time and talent, donating to favorite causes, and purchasing gifts from retailers that give a portion of proceeds to worthy causes are all ways to do a little more good in the world. Here is how to ensure your efforts are going to a legitimate cause, and a few ways to donate that don't involve cash.

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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. Use these four tips to ensure your cash goes toward a worthy cause.

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, 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.”

Related: 16 Thoughtful Ways to Help a Loved One with Breast Cancer

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 at a watchdog group like 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.

Related: AmazonSmile Makes Donating to Your Favorite Charity So Easy

Creative Ways to Donate Time

In addition to a food bank or soup kitchen, consider:

  • The Library: “You can help people learn a second language or computer skills, file taxes, write résumés—there are many ways to help besides filing books,” says Julie VanDeLinder, chief of strategy and business operations for VolunteerMatch.
  • The Firehouse: During toy drives, they might need help sorting and matching toys to recipients.
  • Around Town: Your chamber of commerce can give ideas, but consider shoveling driveways, taking treats to the elderly, or picking up litter at a local park.

How to Buy a Gift That Gives Back

When shopping where purchases benefit charities, read the websites to learn:

  • Which specific charities they donate to. (It’s not enough to say “underprivileged youth.”)
  • 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

Related: 15 Amazing Gifts that Give Back

How to Spot a Fake Charity

Fraudulent groups try to fool you with similar names (Red Cross of Americas instead of 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, like ones that benefit firefighters, veterans, or police officers," Borochoff says. Look for proof that you’re supporting a registered charity with 501(c)(3) status. You can check at give.org, charitynavigator.org, and guidestar.org. Then find out what the money is used for—e.g., health care, housing—and check if the government or a union already provides that.

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 the shelter, 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 like fleece blankets, scarves, and hats. Call the facilities in your area to find out what they need and accept. Of course, cards with holiday and 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.

Related: Why I Became a Master Gardener

Raise Money for a Cause

Lemonade stands are a hit in summer; try a hot cocoa stand this time of year. (Check if you need a permit.) Have kids decide who they want to help: Children? Animals? Victims of a recent natural disaster or other crisis? Pick an organization, get the word out, and set up the stand.

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