How to make sure your charitable donations go far this year

Sure, you could pull an Ebenezer Scrooge and wait until Christmas morning to participate in the season of giving and donate to charity. But why put yourself through the chain-rattling visits by those three ghostly apparitions when you can just open up your wallet — and your heart — right now and support the charities of your choice?

NBC News reports that December is the most popular month for donations; 18 percent of donations take place during this month. And on Giving Tuesday 2015 — which occurred on Dec. 1 — nearly $117 million in donations were raised thanks to nearly 700,000 donors.

Join the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of “givers” out there this holiday season. Here are some tips for stretching your year-end charitable donations and other philanthropic efforts:

1. Do Your Homework
Finding a charitable organization with not only a compelling mission but also a proven track record for spending their resources wisely takes a little bit of research. Fortunately, there are many excellent websites that can help you check out nonprofit organizations before you pull out your checkbook, including:

  • CharityNavigator.org
  • CharityWatch.org
  • GuideStar.org

One thing to beware of are charities that spend excessive amounts on fundraising and overhead.

2. Get Your Employer to Match You
Some employers offer to match their employees’ contributions to qualified charities as part of the employee benefits plan. Check with the human resources department to see if your employer has such a program.

But if you’re not eligible for such a matching gift program, challenge your friends and family to donate to a cause by offering to match their donations with a donation of your own. And sometimes, individual charities will have a generous benefactor who has offered to match any outside donations for a special purpose or during a specific period.

3. Volunteer for Greater Insight
If you can’t afford to write a check, give a gift of your time by volunteering for a local charity. Volunteers are the lifeblood of most nonprofit organizations, and volunteering can give you greater insight into how a charity really functions and whether it’s worthy of your financial support in the future. Plus, I guarantee you that after spending some time volunteering this holiday season to help folks who are truly needy, you can’t help but cut back on your own holiday shopping and holiday wish list.

Find volunteer opportunities near you on websites like these:

  • VolunteerMatch.org
  • CreatetheGood.org
  • Idealist.org

4. Consider an ‘Unrestricted’ Donation
Having spent nearly 25 years in my former career working in the nonprofit sector, I know that many nonprofit organizations need cash donations that come without any strings attached.

Donations earmarked for a specific program or purpose are great. But if you truly believe in the overall mission and good work of a charitable group, why not specifically give an “unrestricted gift” and let those charged with operating the organization decide how to most effectively use your donated dollars?

5. Remember That Little Gifts Can Add Up
If you want to make a generous year-end donation to your favorite charity but just don’t have the cash in the bank to cover the check, do the next best thing by setting up a small monthly automatic payment to that charity instead. Again, based on my own experience as a nonprofit professional, I know that these smaller, regularly scheduled donations can be more important to an organization’s long-term sustainability and success than single, one-time larger gifts. You’ll usually find an option to set up this type of monthly gift on a charity’s website.

6. Use Crowdfunding Websites
Online fundraising platforms like CrowdRise.com and Kickstarter.com let you tap into the generosity of your friends, family and social media networks to support your philanthropic interests. Just remember to return the kindness by reciprocating and contributing to the causes of those who support your crowdfunding campaigns.

7. Opt for Non-cash Donations
Get a jump on your 2016 New Year’s resolution about decluttering your house and life by donating your unwanted stuff right now. Charitable thrift stores often run short on merchandise during this time of year thanks to the increased demand of those shopping for the holidays and winter apparel.

And while well-known national charities — like Goodwill and the Salvation Army — often accept donations of all types of personal and household items, there are specialized charities that are looking for specific types of items, including business attire, musical instruments, sports equipment and computer hardware, to help those in need.

Smile at the Tax Man
Donating your money, stuff or time to a worthy charity will not only warm your heart, but it can result in some pretty heartwarming tax benefits as well. In general, donations to qualified nonprofit organizations are tax-deductible — at least up to certain limits — as are some travel and out-of-pocket expenses you might incur while volunteering.

Consult a tax professional, and see IRS Publication 526 for more information about the rules and how they apply to your situation.

From GoBankingRates.com: How to make sure your charitable donations go far this year

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