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Choosing a charity is all in the details

Tuesday - 12/31/2013, 4:59am  ET

WASHINGTON - Mailboxes, real and virtual, are full to the brim with pitches from non-profits explaining all the good that could be done - but there are only hours left to act.

What's going on?

"This is the biggest time of the year for people to donate - one, for tax purposes, and two, just out of generosity. And so non-profits are trying to take advantage of that," says Lindsay Nichols, spokesperson for Guidestar, the non-profit that describes how other non-profits operate.

She says recipients of all the glossy brochures and email appeals may suffer from donor fatigue. Still, the pitches keep coming.

"There are more than two million U.S.-based non-profits, and it's getting harder and harder for non-profits to break through that clutter" and get your donation, Nichols says.

She adds that donors resist the temptation to give to the first - and perhaps most persistent - appeal. While Nichols says it's important for donors to choose a charity that's meaningful for them, they'll want to do their homework.

Guidestar strives to stay neutral, but researches each charity that's registered with the Internal Revenue Service to see how the money is spent.

"If there's a green check mark, it means it's a legitimate IRS-registered non- profit ... and if it's not, there'll be a yellow exclamation point," says Nichols.

When a natural disaster strikes, many non-profits experienced in dealing with mass casualties will swing into action. But among those, brand new charities pop up, and often there are scams. During these times, Nichols advises donors to take care. If you have any reservations about an organization, ask questions. If the answers aren't satisfactory, steer clear. Nichols says legitimate charities are willing to tell, and show results on, how money is spent.

For more helpful hints, see Guidestar's tips for choosing a charity.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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