Legal & Financial Planning

How to Check Out a Charity Before You Donate

Cameron Huddleston
Cameron Huddleston
April 17, 2024
How to Check Out a Charity Before You Donate

With more than 1.5 million charitable organizations in the U.S., there’s no shortage of causes to support. The challenge, though, is deciding which are the best charities to donate to—especially when you are being bombarded with heartfelt pleas. It can be hard to turn down a request to help disaster victims, children with cancer, abandoned animals, veterans, refugees and the list goes on.

However, you can’t just give with your heart. You also have to give with your head. 

“All of our dollars are valuable,” says Laura Andes, chief program officer at Charity Navigator. “If I’m going to donate, I want to be sure my dollars will have the most impact they can.”

That means being intentional with your giving by first deciding what causes are most important to you, identifying charities that support those causes then evaluating them to determine whether they are trustworthy and effective. Following these steps can help.

See: Watch Out for Recurring Donations You Didn’t Intend to Make

Step 1: Decide what causes matter to you

A common mistake people make when donating to charitable organizations is not being intentional with their giving. Andes says that you need to start by asking yourself, “What do I care about?”

Determine what causes matter most to you, where you want to make an impact (locally, nationally, internationally), and what size or type or organization you want to support. Then, when you get a request to give, you’ll know whether it’s in line with what you believe in, Andes says. Even if you give to the same causes every year, it’s worth your time to evaluate whether they still align with your values. 

Step 2: Identify charities that support causes you care about

Rather than wait for organizations to come to you with donation requests, identify charities that align with causes you want to support. Using a website such as Charity Navigator can make this easy. 

At, you can search for charities by cause and get a list of organizations that support that cause. Charity Navigator also compiles “where to give now” lists, which can be helpful in identifying organizations that are responding to recent events such as natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Step 3: Make sure charities are registered

Most states require charities to register with a state charity regulatory agency before soliciting contributions. And to qualify for tax-exempt status from the IRS, nonprofit charities and foundations must apply for 501(c)(3) status. Donations to these organizations are tax-deductible. You can confirm organizations’ tax-exempt status by using the Tax Exempt Organization Search Tool at 

Social welfare organizations that are involved with lobbying and advocacy are typically registered as 501(c)(4) organizations. Donations to these organizations are not tax-deductible. 

It should raise a red flag if a charity you’re considering donating to isn’t registered with your state or the IRS.

Step 4: Check charity ratings

Independent organizations such as Charity Navigator, BBB Wise Giving Alliance and CharityWatch evaluate charities to determine whether they meet certain standards. Their ratings can be a good place to start when checking out a charity before you donate. 

For example, Charity Navigator uses a four-star system to rate 230,000 501(c)(3) charities across four areas: accountability and finance, impact and measurement, leadership and adaptability, and culture and community. A rating of four or three stars means that a charity exceeds or meets best practices and industry standards across almost all areas or some areas that are evaluated. Ratings of two, one and zero stars suggest that a charity needs improvement, fails to meet industry standards or falls below industry standards.

 “Many users see three or four stars and feel they can give with confidence,” Andes says. If a charity isn’t rated by Charity Navigator or other groups, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a legitimate organization. You should do your own research to gather information about it.

Using an account, credit and identity monitoring service such as Carefull makes it easy to ensure your money is going to a highly rated charity. Carefull includes Charity Navigator ratings in its donation alerts so that you’ll know when you make contributions whether your money is going to trustworthy and responsible organizations. 

Try Carefull for free for 30 days.

Step 5: Dig deeper

Look beyond ratings to determine whether you agree with how a charity is addressing the cause you care about and how effective it is. You can do this by visiting its website (which typically is .org for a charity), reading its annual report on its website or Form 990 filed with the IRS, and asking these questions.

  • What is the charity’s mission? Make sure you agree with how the charity addresses the issue you want to support. For example, you might want to provide financial support for animal shelters but the organization uses funds to lobby for animal welfare initiatives. The charity’s website should clearly state its mission and how it reaches its goals.
  • What is the charity’s history of success? Check its website and annual report for statistics that show what sort of impact it has made. “Look at the numbers,” Andes says. “Are they reporting tangible outcomes.” 
  • How much money is going toward the charity’s mission? No charity should be claiming that 100% of donations go toward the cause it supports because there are costs associated with running a charity. However, charitable organizations typically shouldn’t be spending more than 30% of their total expenses on administrative and fundraising costs, according to Charity Navigator.

Step 6: Look for red flags

When you donate to charity, you want to ensure that your money is going to be put to good use. To do that, you can’t rely solely on the organization’s name and the pitch it’s making in a call, email, letter or social media post. 

“The vast majority of charities are doing what they say, are trustworthy, are effective,” Andes says. “That being said, that’s not true for every charity. There are predator charities. They might be truly fraudulent—or might not be on the up and up.”

To protect donors, Charity Navigator creates profiles on its sites for fraudulent charities to alert people that they are fake. And it posts alerts on profiles for legitimate charities if there are reports that those charities have engaged in misconduct.

When you’re contacted by a charity, researching one you’re considering donating to or reviewing organizations you’re already supporting, keep an eye out for these red flags:

  • The charity is pressuring you to make a donation on the spot and isn’t willing to give you time to research the organization or provide you with additional information.
  • The charity is demanding that donations be paid with cash, cryptocurrency, gift cards or wire transfers. 
  • The charity doesn’t provide specific information about its mission, impact and operating costs on its website or annual report. 
  • The charity doesn’t provide an annual report on its site or won’t provide you one when requested.
  • The charity doesn’t list its EIN, Employer Identification Number, on its website or donation form. 
  • The charity has a low rating from Charity Navigator, BBB Wise Giving Alliance or CharityWatch. 
  • The charity’s board members are paid (they should be independent, not employees of the organization, Andes says).

Step 7: Review donations

Once you’ve chosen a charity and have made a donation, check your account to verify that the amount you intended to give was debited from or charged to your account. And keeps tabs on your account to ensure that you weren’t inadvertently signed up for recurring donations you didn’t intend to make. 

Recurring donations rather than one large donation at the end of the year can be more beneficial to charities because it distributes funding throughout the year, Andes says. However, some online donation platforms, especially those for political campaigns, use pre-checked boxes for recurring donations. If you want to make only a one-time donation, make sure there isn’t a box already checked that commits you to recurring donations. Users of the Carefull service are alerted to recurring donations to help them be aware of where their money is going.

It’s also a good idea to review charities you give to on a regular basis to see if they still have good ratings, haven’t made any changes to their missions or operations, and haven’t engaged in any sort of misconduct. This helps ensure that your money is put to good use.

Keep Reading: How to Avoid Charity Scams

Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston

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