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How to Choose Legit Charities (and Avoid Scams) This Holiday Season

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Most of us tend to get into a generous mood around the holidays. Something about the season makes us think about others a bit more and want to make their lives a little better. But how do you choose legit charities (and avoid scams) this holiday season? Today we’re going to teach you some of the do’s and don’ts of donating online and offline during this holiday season.

Giving USA reported that giving by American individuals, bequests, foundations, and corporations rose to nearly $450 billion in 2019. This year, even with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to plague the nation, it’s likely that plenty of people will still open their hearts—and wallets—to support important charities and causes.

So the question on everyone’s mind when it comes to giving: how can I choose legitimate charities that will use my donations wisely? We don’t want to support organizations where the CEO takes a huge salary or where too-high of a percentage of contributions goes to marketing efforts. We know we have to carefully vet our options in order to avoid falling prey to scams.

If you want your charitable giving dollars to go to the right places and stretch as far as possible, you’ve got to do your homework. It’s perfectly nice to send $20 to your child’s PTA fundraiser once a year (without much thought). However, when larger donations come into play, it’s worthwhile to take a bit more time to discover which organizations will make the best use of your money.

Focus on Charities and Causes That Matter To You

Before you even get into how to choose legit charities and not the scammers, think about charities and causes that mean the most to you.

Maybe you give to nonprofits with a recurring monthly donation throughout the year, or perhaps you hold off until the holiday season to make all your charitable donations. Whatever your preference, it stands to reason that your giving should center around causes that matter to you.

Usually, the toughest part of this is not coming up with causes that you care about, but narrowing them down to a few that you can reasonably support.

A Few Ways to Find Ideas to Choose Legit Charities or Causes:

  • Diseases afflicting yourself or loved ones
  • Hobbies or activities you enjoy
  • Current events (natural disasters, political issues, etc.)

One common way to pick charitable causes is to think about your loved ones. If someone close to you is battling a particular disease or has passed away from it, it’s natural to want to use some of your charitable donations for that. Helping fund scientific research related to a disease is a wonderful way to give back to help the world.

Hobbies and activities are another way to brainstorm where to give your money. Perhaps you love outdoor sports and can donate to fund camp scholarships for urban kids to escape into nature for a week. Or if you’re passionate about literacy, find a good organization that provides tutoring or free books. Maybe you’re an animal lover and you decide to send some of your funds to support your local Humane Society.

Current events, obviously, tend to inspire quite a bit of generosity. The Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Harvey, and the COVID-19 pandemic are just a few from the past decade that have brought many of us to part with our money. We’ll get more into this later, but just be sure to check out charities before giving. Don’t skip that part just because it’s an emergency situation.

If you’re stuck, just do a simple online keyword search using a cause that interests you and the words “charity” or “best charities”. If you want to support veterans, just search “legit charities for veterans,” for example.

Don’t feel guilty if you can’t give as much money as you’d like to; what’s important is giving something when you can. Even Mother Teresa was quoted as saying, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” No one can support every charity, obviously, but collectively, we can all make a difference.

Read more about why you should think twice about giving if you’re in credit card debt.  Give only if you’re financially able to do so.

Decide Whether to Give to Local, National, or Global Charities

When giving your funds, another decision to be made is whether to give primarily to local organizations or those with a wider national or global impact. There really isn’t a right or wrong answer here, as long as you research all charities to ensure your money will be spent effectively.

Many people derive greater joy from focusing their giving on local charities, such as food pantries and children’s organizations. You can often see the impact of your contributions in a more tangible way when you remain local. Plus, these organizations typically have smaller operating budgets and will greatly appreciate your gifts.

However, it’s great to direct some of your generosity towards larger national or global nonprofits and organizations. The scope of issues they can address may be much broader than you’ll find locally.

The good news is you don’t necessarily have to choose one or the other. Depending on how much money you are able to give, you can allocate a portion to local organizations and a portion to global organizations.

Best Charity Evaluators

One of the best, and most important, steps to take in finding legit charities and avoiding scams is doing simple research. Read up on how charities manage their contributions, how much they accomplish to help improve lives, and more. There are a few excellent resources where you can look up specific charities and learn how well they manage the donations they receive.

Charity Navigator is one of the top sites where you can research and vet potential charities. It’s been in action since 2001, and currently provides ratings and details on 1.6 million nonprofits (wow!).

The two primary areas of nonprofits that Charity Navigator rates are: Financial Health, and Accountability & Transparency. When you look up charities included on the site, it gives you a rating taking those key factors into account.

The site allows you to customize your search by size of organization, location (and whether it’s regional, national, or international), category of services, and more.

Other Great Charity Evaluation Tools:

  • BBB Wise Giving Alliance
  • CharityWatch
  • Guidestar
  • Givewell
    • Givewell focuses their efforts on finding which charities do the most good. They look atnumbers such as lives saved or improved. Many other charity rating sites emphasize the financial aspects of organizations, not so much the measurable impact of the organizations.

Using Charity Navigator or one of the other trusted sites listed can help provide peace of mind. You want to trust that your money will be used appropriately. This quick research enables you to get that reassurance.

Another route to learning which charities are legit and which ones to avoid: online searches. You can name the cause or charity and just look it up with keywords.

  • Scams
  • Reviews
  • Complaints
  • Ratings

All of those plus your charity name or category (education, poverty, animals, etc.) should give you the data you need.

Choose Legit Charities: What to Do and What Not to Do

To provide some basic guidelines for anyone looking for legit charities to support this holiday season, let’s look at a few do’s and don’t’s of giving.


  • Research your charities carefully before making a donation.
  • Find out if your donations are tax-deductible. Here’s more on 2021 tax deductions.
  • Pay by check or credit card for your safety.
  • Keep a record of all donations, including dates and amounts.
  • Check whether it’s a one-time or recurring donation.


  • Wire money to anyone.
  • Buy gift cards to be used as payments or donations.
  • Rush your decision, especially based on emotional ads or individuals pressuring you.
  • Assume a charity is legit because caller ID appears local (scammers can fake this).
  • Believe anyone who promises a guaranteed prize in exchange for your gift.

Finding Legit Charities and Giving Back to Help Others

Donating your money to help causes that are near and dear to you is so important during the holidays and year-round. These charities do a ton of good in our local communities and the world. Don’t be afraid to give generously. With a few smart tips and strategies, you can avoid scams and ensure you only support legit charities and nonprofits.

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Personal Finance Writer
Kate Underwood is a personal finance writer who frequently annoys her friends and family with finance recommendations. She graduated from Wheaton College with a teaching degree. She pivoted a few years ago, leaving a longtime teaching career to pursue freelance writing, and has loved every minute of it! She’s a mom of two and in her free time enjoys all things related to nature, hiking, and The Office.

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