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    I Want To Donate To A Charity But I Don't Have The Dough!

    You don’t have to give a lot to give a lot.

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    When you add up all your gift receipts, travel expenses, and that year-end bonus you probably didn’t get, the holiday season can get real expensive real quick. It can be a monetary challenge to do everything you want during the most wonderful time of the year, including being charitable. While the season may make your Grinchy heart grow three times in size, that doesn’t mean your wallet will follow.

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    Luckily, there are plenty of ways to be charitable that don’t involve donating large sums of money. But how do you know the right groups or organizations to donate to? And, more importantly, how can you ensure that your donations (monetary or otherwise) will actually have an impact?

    To answer these questions and more, we consulted generosity expert Stephanie Kalivas, an analyst at CharityWatch, a nonprofit company that helps donors make more informed decisions by measuring the effectiveness of every charity dollar.

    First, Follow Your Passion.

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    “As far as finding a charity to give to, most people have causes they feel more passionate about than others,” Kalivas says. When deciding to donate to a cause, whether it’s money, goods, or services, the first thing you should do is think of the issues that matter most to you.

    Animal lovers might want to give back to their furry friends, environmentalists to organizations aimed at saving the planet (although that’s really something everyone should be on board with), and military families will want to support veterans groups. The latitude for giving is wide, and whether you choose any of those, or charities aimed at furthering educational opportunities for all students or funding cancer research, pick something you give a damn about.

    Research Before You Donate a Single Cent.

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    Unfortunately, there are a number of nonprofits out there that waste people’s monetary donations on things like for-profit fundraisers or inflated salaries for board members instead of directing the majority of those funds to actual needy causes.

    “Make sure you’re giving to a charity that will be using your money and most of your donations toward actual charitable programs,” Kalivas says. “Some people don’t realize that not all charities are using your money as efficiently as you think they are.” In other words: There are plenty of low-rated organizations out there intent on keeping more of your money than they actually use for doing good. A general rule of thumb is that charities should spend at least 75% or more of their cash budget on their charitable programs — roughly $25 or less to raise every $100 in funds.

    If you’re concerned about where your money’s going, there are options. First, use websites like CharityWatch or other reputable charity watchdog organizations (see list below). Or, you can always ask the charity for their financial information and tax files. And if it’s local, you could just visit the charity yourself to see how it operates firsthand.

    Every Dollar Counts, Even If It’s Just One.

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    Money is indeed the simplest thing to give to a worthy cause, but for the cash-strapped, it can be the hardest. If you don’t have a lot of money, even the tiniest donation is still worth giving, and nonprofit/charity organizations won’t turn their nose up at you.

    “Even if someone wants to give $5, $10, $20, or $25, a charity is going to be more than happy to receive that donation,” Kalivas says. “People don’t need to feel like they always need to give $50 or $100 in every one contribution amount.”

    Your Time and Service Are Invaluable.

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    If you’re strapped for cash, you can always donate your time. When it comes to volunteer and service opportunities, Kalivas recommends starting with national organizations like the United Way, which will funnel opportunities at a local level. “A lot of the time, they’re working with other charitable organizations within your community to provide services.”

    Meals on Wheels organizations, for example, are great for volunteering or spending time with the elderly, and nationally, another charity similar in nature is the National Council on Aging, whose website includes NCOA-approved programs by state.

    Kalivas mentions that during the holidays, places like food banks are always going to be looking for additional help. Speaking of which…

    Donating Goods Can Do a Lot of Good.

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    Food, clothing, furniture: There’s a good chance that you have some of these things in your pantry, closet, or living room that could find a better home.

    For local food banks, you can raid your cupboards for non-expired food to donate or even purchase some food to donate if you’d like, especially when you see a good deal (double coupons!). Schedule furniture pickups with Habitat for Humanity or Goodwill. Lots of local veterans groups pick up furniture and household goods too.

    Many local homeless shelters will also run clothing drives, and area churches may even sponsor local children for the holiday season, where you can purchase gifts for underprivileged kids. Nationally, charities related to combating hunger, poverty, and homelessness include the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Coalition for the Homeless, The Hunger Project, and Unbound.

    You Can Always Give Blood.

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    Blood donation is something the world is in constant need of, and everyone has it, so this gift can be relatively easy to give, unless you have health problems (recent colds or stuffy noses)  or other circumstances (like tattoos or recent travel outside of the United States) that prevent you from doing so (don’t get us started on the FDA’s policy on gay male donors, which is discriminatory and outdated, even if it’s slowly starting to change).

    The American Red Cross accepts money and goods as donations, but often when you give blood at blood drives, donors are offered something in return, like a gift card. You could even double down on the giving by donating said gift card to someone in need.

    Just make sure you’re contacting the correct Red Cross. “Sometimes charity scammers will use a name that’s very similar to a well-known charity name, [like] the Direct Cross of America instead of the American Red Cross,” Kalivas says. “It’s done intentionally so that people get confused and think they’re giving to the Red Cross when they’re not.” Other “scams” to look for include unsolicited calls from telemarketers or direct mail asking for money.

    For more information on charity research, visit these resources: CandidCharity Check 101Charity NavigatorGiveWellGreat NonProfitsGuideStar, and the IRS.