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In season of giving, make sure your donations go to charity

The season for giving doesn't end with Christmas. Many people make their charitable gifts and donations for the year in the last two weeks of December.

Year-end charitable giving is often a case of repeating the same amounts to the same charities you gave to last year. But perhaps this year you're looking to help a different cause or want to check that the charities you choose are operating in a way that makes you comfortable.

"There are over 1.5 million registered charities," says Laura Fredricks, chief executive of The Ask, a company that advises philanthropic organizations on fundraising and offers advice to consumers on a range of topics. "How do you select?"

Fredricks says people traditionally donate to three types of charities: religious, educational and health-related causes. Once you find a charity you think looks promising, you should begin to dig deeper. "My most important thing is where does their money go, and how much of it goes there?" Fredricks says. "There are some groups that do phenomenal fundraising, but they don't release a lot of the funds."

There are numerous resources on the Web that offer information on a charity's efficiency and whether it is following its stated purpose. Fredricks recommends Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org), which rates philanthropic organizations on a number of criteria. "You can take a look at how long they've been in existence and who's on their board," she says. She also gives high marks to GuideStar (guidestar.org), another industry watchdog that covers thousands of not-for-profits. Both Charity Navigator and GuideStar have information on executives' salaries and other overhead costs. And the Better Business Bureau provides information on charities at its Wise Giving website (give.org).

When checking out a charity, Fredricks says, look for a chart or description that breaks down where the money it raises is distributed. Make sure at least 80 percent of the funds raised are going directly to programs and services, she says.

Also be aware this is the season when con artists are looking to take advantage of your generosity. Callers claiming to represent charitable groups linked to police and firefighters are sometimes frauds. "Who doesn't want to give to both of those groups making us safe and whole?" Fredricks says. "But there are a lot of scams." She also notes there's been an upsurge in fake charities claiming to help veterans.

The Federal Trade Commission offers information on common charity scams at nwsdy.li/charityscams.

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