'Tis the season for charitable giving. But before you write a check, make sure you do a charity check-up. The sad truth is that not all nonprofits put their money where their mission is. 

Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission and law enforcement partners from every state and the District of Columbia charged four cancer charities with defrauding consumers of more than $187 million. Instead of helping cancer patients, the heads of the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, Children’s Cancer Fund of America, and the Breast Cancer Society allegedly funneled donations into luxury cruises, college tuition for family members and friends, gym memberships, sporting event and concert tickets, and even dating website memberships.

And the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe led H. Art Taylor, president of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, to warn consumers about spurious solicitations for humanitarian help. (Use our advice to find out whether a charity is a scam.)

Then there's the fact that even without being fraudulent, some charities routinely spend a larger amount of their donors’ dollars on administrative and fundraising costs than on programs that benefit people in need.

Similar-sounding names can further confuse consumers. For example, while the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society allocates $19 to raise $100 and funnels 73 percent of its budget to programs, the Childhood Leukemia Foundation spends $65 for every $100 it raises and targets just 27 percent of its budget to programs. 

So before you donate, check out organizations you’re considering with charity watchdogs, which make it easier to see where your dollars have the greatest impact. The three major ones are: the BBB Wise Giving AllianceCharity Navigator, and CharityWatch. They evaluate charities by looking at a number of factors, including how much of your donation actually reaches the causes you want to support.

To get the approval of the Wise Giving Alliance, for example, organizations must spend at least 65 percent of their donations on charitable program activities, and fundraising costs can’t exceed 35 percent.

CharityWatch gives its top rating to about a third of the more than 600 charities it evaluates. Charity Navigator, which looks at more than 8,000 organizations, many of them small and regional, lets you see which charities rate high by metro area. It also provides provides easy-to-follow lists, such as “10 top-notch charities” and, conversely, “10 consistently low-rated charities.” 

Below are examples of high- and low-rated charities in various categories. As part of of this report on the best and worst charities, we looked for agreement—on positive and negative traits—among the three major watchdogs. Because not every group is evaluated by all three watchdogs, we relied in some cases on agreement by just two. We also left out highly rated charities that CharityWatch says obtain a considerable amount of income from the government (such as Save the Children).

In short, to ensure that your dollars will make the most difference, do your homework before you donate. 

For more advice on giving to charity, read "Make Sure Your Donation Counts" and "Don't Donate Blindly to Police and Fire Groups."

Best & Worst Charities

Animal welfarePetSmart Charities, Phoenix Animal Welfare Institute, Washington, D.C.SPCA International, N.Y. Tiger Missing Link Foundation, Tyler, Texas
Blind and visually impairedGuide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Smithtown, N.Y. Seva Foundation, Berkeley, Calif.American Council of the Blind, Arlington, Va. Heritage for the Blind, Brooklyn, N.Y.
CancerCancer Research Institute, N.Y. Breast Cancer Research Foundation, N.Y.

American Association for Cancer Support, Knoxville, Tenn. Cancer Survivors' Fund, Missouri City, Texas

Child protection

Children's Defense Fund, Washington, D.C. Prevent Child Abuse America, Chicago

The Committee for Missing Children, Lawrenceville, Ga.

Find the Children, Santa Monica, Calif.

EnvironmentEarthworks, Washington, D.C. Environmental Defense Fund, N.Y.Gaia-Movement Living Earth 

Green World Action USA, Chicago


Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, New York

American Kidney Fund, Rockville, Md.

Heart Center of America, Knoxville, Tenn. Childhood Leukemia Foundation, Brick, N.J.
Human servicesAmerican Red Cross, Washington, D.C. Farm Aid, Cambridge, Mass.

Shiloh International Ministries, La Verne, Calif.

Children'™s Charity Fund, Sarasota, Fla.

International relief and developmentAmerican Refugee Committee, Minneapolis, Minn. International Rescue Committee, N.Y.Planet Aid, Milford, Mass. Salesian Missions, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Mental health and disabilities

Alzheimer's Foundation of America, N.Y. 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, N.Y.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, Schererville, Ind. National Caregiving Foundation, Alexandria, Va.
Police and firefighter supportConcerns of Police Survivors, Camdenton, Mo. FDNY Foundation, Brooklyn, N.Y.Disabled Police Officers Counseling Center, Niceville, Fla. Firefighters Charitable Foundation, Farmingdale, N.Y.
VeteransHomes for Our Troops, Taunton, Mass. Operation Homefront, San AntonioNational Veterans Services Fund, Darien, Conn. National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, Washington, D.C.

How to Detect Charity Scams

Whether the solicitation comes via email or on the phone, it might not be easy to tell whether it's legitimate. But the Federal Trade Commission says these signs should make you suspicious:

  • The “charity” can’t provide details about how donations are used.
  • The caller can’t provide proof—like a Federal tax ID number—that it’s a qualified charity and that your donation is tax-deductible.
  • You're pushed to donate immediately.
  • You’re asked to wire a donation.
  • You're thanked for a pledge you never made to convince you that you already agreed to donate.

Charity Navigator says you should be especially skeptical of charitable solicitations that come via email if you haven't signed up to receive electronic communications from the organization the email purports to be from.

Many scams also use the names and logos of legitimate charitable entities to trick you into giving money. So even if you see a heart-wrenching picture of a wounded warrior or a mournful-looking lemur, do not automatically click through to any link. Respond with your head, not your heart, by checking the organization out at the charity watchdog websites and assuring yourself that the email is legitimately connected to the organization you wish to help.

If the organization is real but poorly rated, there's no need to investigate further. Just don't give.