Best and Worst Charities for Your Donations

Important tips to keep in mind in the season of giving

Hands holding heart illustration Illustration: iStock

Editor’s Note: Consumer Reports has not updated the specific charities mentioned in this story since November 2019. If you’re looking for tips on choosing a charity, you can vet the charities you’re considering by checking the websites of the watchdog organizations mentioned here. 

During the holidays, many consumers receive a multitude of donation requests from charitable organizations, as well as crowdfunding sites and other online giving platforms.

A charity’s name may signal worthy a cause, such as feeding the hungry or supporting veterans. But you need to look carefully at the organization to make sure you are sending your money to the right place.

“You don’t want to choose a charity by the name alone, since your donation may go to a questionable group,” says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the charity watchdog BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Some organizations may spend too much on administrative and fundraising costs or are outright scammers.

Vetting charities is especially important now because December is typically the largest month for giving. According to a recent report by the Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact, 17 percent of contributions were made during December last year.

The best course of action before giving is to check out the charity with one or more of the major charity watchdogs, including the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and CharityWatch.

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By doing this vetting, you can feel more confident that the group you’re donating to deserves your support. Charities differ a lot in how much of the money they raise goes for programs instead of covering the expense of raising money.

To become accredited by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, charities must meet 20 standards, including adequate board oversight and strong conflict-of-interest policies, as well as the requirement that they spend at least 65 percent of their total expenses on their charitable programs and no more than 35 percent of their total contributions on fundraising.

CharityWatch uses a letter-grade rating system that also looks at the percentage of overhead spent on programs, the cost of fundraising, and other measures of efficiency.

“Charities that are A-rated generally spend at least 75 percent or more on their programs, so more of your money goes to causes you want to support,” says Stephanie Kalivas, analyst at CharityWatch.

For example, CharityWatch gave the Disabled Veterans National Foundation, which spent only 4 percent on its programs, an F, while the National Military Family Association, which spent 82 percent, received an A.

Charity Navigator focuses on financial metrics, accountability, and transparency. (You can find more information about the rating methodologies used by the watchdogs on their websites.)

To help you discover charities that are worthy of your support and those to avoid, we’ve provided a list of organizations the top watchdogs agree deserve high and low ratings.

We looked for a consensus among all three watchdogs. However, in some cases we included groups that were evaluated by just two. If a group was not accredited by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, it was not included in our list of top-rated charities, although it may be included on our list of low-rated charities, which received poor grades from the other watchdogs.

Keep in mind that our table below is a partial list of high- and low-rated charities in only some categories. You can find more by going to the watchdogs’ websites directly—just enter a group’s name in the search box. CharityWatch is the only one of the three that requires visitors to make a donation for full access to its reports, although it provides a list of its top-rated charities and other useful information free of charge.

If the watchdogs haven’t evaluated a group you’re considering supporting, you can research it yourself, Weiner suggests.

You can also look for top-rated alternative charities, typically smaller and lesser-known nonprofits, which are recommended by ratings groups such as GiveWell, GlobalGiving, and ImpactMatters.

Be sure to check the charity’s own website for information about its mission, a list of the board of directors, and its latest financial reports. If the site doesn’t have those details, “it is sending you a message that the organization is not very transparent,” Weiner says. (Read more about vetting charity documents.)

Some of the Highest- and Lowest-Rated Charities

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High-Rated and Low-Rated Charities

Animal WelfareAmerican Humane(Washington, D.C.)Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue
(Mount Airy, Md.)
PetSmart Charities
Noah’s Lost Ark
(Berlin Center, Ohio)
Wildlife Conservation Society
(Bronx, N.Y.)
Redwings Horse Rescue & Sanctuary
(Lockwood, Calf.)
Blind and Hearing ImpairedGuide Dog Foundation for the Blind
(Smithtown, N.Y.)
Heritage for the Blind(Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Hearing Health Foundation
(New York City)
Macular Degeneration Association(Sarasota, Fla.)
Helen Keller International
(New York City)

National Federation of the Blind(Baltimore)

Prevent Blindness(Chicago)
CancerBreast Cancer Research Foundation
(New York City)
Cancer Survivors’ Fund
(Missouri City, Texas)
Cancer Research Institute
(New York City)
Childhood Leukemia Foundation
(Brick, N.J.)

National Pediatric Cancer Foundation(Tampa, Fla.)
Children’s Leukemia Research Association
(Garden City, N.Y.)
Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance(New York City)
United Breast Cancer Foundation
(Huntington, N.Y.)
Prevent Cancer Foundation(Alexandria, Va.)Walker Cancer Research Institute
(Aberdeen, Md.)
Child and Family Assistance
Hispanic Federation(New York City)
Abandoned Children's Fund
(Santa Rosa, Calf.)
Marine Toys for Tots Foundation(Triangle, Va.)Committee for Missing Children(Lawrenceville, Ga.)
Prevent Child Abuse America
Find the Children(Santa Monica, Calf.)
Ronald McDonald House Charities
(Oak Brook, Ill.)

(Kansas City, Kan.)
(Washington, D.C.)
Sierra Club Foundation
(Oakland, Calif.)
(Kansas City, Mo.)
World Resources Institute
(Washington, D.C.)
HealthAmerican Kidney Fund
(Rockville, Md.)
Defeat Diabetes Foundation
(Madeira Beach, Fla.)
Children's Health Fund(New York City)Heart Center of America
(Knoxville, Tenn.)
Lupus Research Alliance
(New York City)
National Caregiving Foundation
(Dunkirk, Md.)
Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research
(New York City)
United Cerebral Palsy
(Washington, D.C.)
National Hemophilia Foundation
(New York City)
International Relief and DevelopmentCatholic Relief Services
Aid for Starving Children
(Windsor, Calif.)
International Medical Corps(Los Angeles)Mercy Chefs(Portsmouth, Va.)
International Rescue Committee(New York City)Salesian Missions(New Rochelle, N.Y.)
Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
(Evanston, Ill.)
United Methodist Committee on Relief
Mental Health and DisabilitiesThe Arc of the United States
(Washington, D.C.)
Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation
(Schererville, Ind.)
Brain & Behavior Research Foundation
(New York City)

Mental Health America(Alexandria, Va.)
National Alliance on Mental Illness
(Arlington, Va.)
Police SupportConcerns of Police Survivors(Camdenton, Mo.)American Federation of Police & Concerned Citizens
(Titusville, Fla.)
National Association of Chiefs of Police
(Titusville, Fla.)
United States Deputy Sheriff's Association
(Wichita, Kan.)
VeteransGary Sinise Foundation
(Woodland Hills, Calif.)
Disabled Veterans National Foundation
(Lanham, Md.)
Homes for Our Troops
(Taunton, Mass.)
Help Heal Veterans
(Winchester, Calif.)
National Military Family Association
(Alexandria, Va.)
Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation
(Annandale, Va.)
Operation Homefront
(San Antonio)
Paralyzed Veterans of America
(Washington, D.C.)
Wounded Warriors Family Support
(Omaha, Neb.)
Veterans Support Foundation
(Silver Spring, Md.)
Youth DevelopmentBoys & Girls Clubs of America
California Police Youth Charities
(Sacramento, Calif.)
Girls Inc.
(New York City)
Kars4Kids(Lakewood, N.J.)
National 4-H Council
(Chevy Chase, Md.)

Tips for Giving

• Verify tax-exempt status. If you’re not sure whether donations to a particular charity are tax-deductible (don’t assume they are), confirm a group’s status by checking with the group or by searching on the IRS website.

• Give directly. If you’re contacted by a professional fundraiser for a charity you want to support, hang up and give directly instead. “The fundraiser might be keeping two-thirds of the money,” says Stephanie Kalivas of CharityWatch.

Watch for fees. Online giving platforms and crowdfunding websites often charge payment processing fees on donations, perhaps 3 percent or more, which reduces the impact of your gift. The charity may also be charged transaction fees if you send your payment via credit card. To avoid those fees, consider giving by cash or check or direct bank transfer when possible.

• Request privacy. If you don’t want to be bothered by endless fundraising appeals, tell groups you support that you don’t want your name and contact information sold, exchanged, or rented to other groups or for-profit companies, a common practice among some charities. You also can ask the groups not to send you further appeal letters, email, or phone solicitations. Check the charity’s privacy policy before giving.

• Be on guard for soundalikes. Some low-rated charities have names that resemble those of high-rated ones. For example, there’s the low-rated United Breast Cancer Foundation of Huntington, N.Y., and the high-rated Breast Cancer Research Foundation of New York City. “In some cases, soundalike charities are there with the intent to deceive donors into thinking they are donating to somebody else,” says Bennett Weiner of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. In other instances, groups have similar names because they’re focusing on the same causes.

• Consider donating to the charity watchdogs. They’re charities, too.