For many people, the holiday season is the time of year for charitable giving. Donations can be given to charities that support the environment, protect children, feed the hungry, or help other worthy causes. Last year, nearly 18 percent of charitable giving occurred in December, according to a recent report by the Giving USA Foundation in partnership with the Growth in Giving Initiative. 

For many donors, though, the tricky part of making a donation is choosing the charity.

"You can't really base your decision to give to an organization on the name alone," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the charity watchdog BBB Wise Giving Alliance. "Unfortunately, there are some donors who do." 

But a charity's name doesn't always tell you where your donation will go. The Disabled Veterans National Foundation, based in Washington, D.C., has a name that suggests that most of the money it raises helps veterans. But according to its latest 990 Form (Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax), of the $29 million it spent in its fiscal 2015 year, less than one-third was used for the group’s charitable programs. Most of the rest was used for fundraising. (Disabled Veterans National Foundation didn't respond to our request for comment.)

By comparison, the St. Louis-based charity The Mission Continues—a name that gives no clue that it helps veterans—spent nearly 90 percent of its total spending on its charitable program and just 7 percent on fundraising, according to the watchdog Charity Navigator.

A better way to choose a charity is to find one that really puts your money to work.

“You can get more bang for your buck by giving to an A-rated charity," says Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of watchdog group CharityWatch, referring to the grading system it uses. CharityWatch gave Disabled Veteran’s National Foundation a grade of F, and The Mission Continues earned an A.

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Check With a Watchdog

Before making a donation, it's a good idea to look up the charity you are considering at the websites of the charity watchdogs. The three big ones are CharityWatch, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Collectively, these groups evaluate thousands of nonprofit organizations based on how they collect and spend their money, how transparent they are to the public, and how well they’re governed.

Though each watchdog has its own system for assessing charities, they all use similar criteria. For example, CharityWatch says that for a group to have a satisfactory rating, at least 60 percent of its spending should go to the charity's programs. To garner its top rating, 75 percent of a group's expenses must be used for its programs, and its fundraising costs cannot exceed 25 percent of the money it raises.

Charity Navigator also examines how much of a charity's spending goes to programs, but the percentages vary depending on the causes they support.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance requires charities to spend at least 65 percent of their total expenses on their charitable missions and no more than 35 percent of their contributions on fundraising activities—as well as meet about 20 other requirements—in order to be accredited. 

The watchdogs, though, report their findings differently. CharityWatch gives letter grades, Charity Navigator uses stars, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance reports which, if any, of its charitable standards a charity fails to meet, awarding accreditation only to those charities that comply with its request for information and meet all of its standards. Those that don’t send in requested information get the label “Did Not Disclose” on the BBB website.

Using the watchdog reports, we came up with a list of some of the highest- and lowest-rated charities in 11 categories. We looked for agreement among all three watchdogs; however, in some cases we included groups that were evaluated by just two. If a group did not disclose requested information to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, we did not include it in our list of high-rated charities, although it may have been included on our list of low-rated charities.

Our goal was to come up with five highest- and lowest-rated charities in each category, but that wasn’t always possible. Though environmental charities generally do well with all of the watchdogs, for example, it was impossible to find highly rated national police and fire charities.

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. CharityWatch is the only watchdog 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.

High-Rated and Low-Rated Charities

Animal WelfareAnimal Welfare Institute, Washington, D.C.SPCA International, New York, N.Y.
American Bird Conservancy, The Plains, Va.Tiger Missing Link Foundation, Tyler, Texas
PetSmart Charities, Phoenix, Ariz.
RedRover, Sacramento, Calif.

African Wildlife Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Blind and Hearing Impaired
Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Smithtown, N.Y.Heritage for the Blind, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Hearing Health Foundation, New York, N.Y.
Macular Degeneration Association, Sarasota, Fla.
National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, Md.

Orbis International, New York, N.Y.

Seva Foundation, Berkeley, Calif.
CancerBreast Cancer Research Foundation, New York, N.Y.Cancer Survivors' Fund, Missouri City, Texas
Cancer Research Institute, New York, N.Y.Childhood Leukemia Foundation, Brick, N.J.
Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, Norwalk, Conn.National Cancer Center, Plainview, N.Y.

Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance, New York, N.Y.

National Cancer Assistance Foundation, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Manhattan Beach, Calif.Walker Cancer Research Institute, Aberdeen, Md.
Child Assistance, Protection, and SponsorshipChildren Incorporated, North Chesterfield, Va.The Committee for Missing Children, Lawrenceville, Ga.
Compassion International, Colorado Springs, Colo.Find the Children, Santa Monica, Calif.
Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, Triangle, Va.
Youth Development Fund, Knoxville, Tenn.
Prevent Child Abuse America, Chicago, Ill.
Unbound, Kansas City, Kan.
Human and Civil Rights

American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York, N.Y.

American Civil Rights Union, Alexandria, Va.
Center for Community Change, Washington, D.C. United States Justice Foundation, Ramona, Calif.
Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Philadelphia, Pa.

Fund for Global Human Rights, Washington, D.C.

Human Rights Watch, New York, N.Y.
EnvironmentConservation Fund, Arlington, Va.

Cousteau Society, Etna, N.H.

Earthjustice, San Francisco, Calif.
Earthworks, Washington, D.C.
Environmental Defense Fund, New York, N.Y.
Waterkeeper Alliance, New York, N.Y.
HealthAmerican Kidney Fund, Rockville, Md.

Defeat Diabetes Foundation, Madeira Beach, Fla.

Hearing Health Foundation, New York, N.Y.Heart Center of America, Knoxville, Tenn.
Guttmacher Institute, New York, N.Y.

National Emergency Medicine Association, Edgewood, Md.

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

National Caregiving Foundation, Dunkirk, Md.

National Psoriasis Foundation, Portland, Ore.Wishing Well Foundation USA, Metairie, La.
International Relief and Developmentcharity: water, New York, N.Y.Salesian Missions, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Lutheran World Relief, Baltimore, Md.

Partners in Health, Boston, Mass.

Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, Evanston, Ill.

United Methodist Committee on Relief, New York, N.Y.

Mental Health and Disabilities

Alzheimer's Foundation of America, New York, N.Y.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, Schererville, Ind. 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, New York, N.Y.
Arc of the United States, Washington, D.C.

Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, New York, N.Y.

Trevor Project, West Hollywood, Calif.
Police and Firefighter Support
Disabled Police Officers of America, Niceville, Fla.

Firefighters Charitable Foundation, Farmingdale, N.Y.

Law Enforcement Education Program, Troy, Mich.
National Association of Chiefs of Police, Titusville, Fla.

Police Protective Fund, Austin, Texas
VeteransHomes for Our Troops, Taunton, Mass.

Armed Forces Foundation, Washington, D.C.

Hope for the Warriors, Jacksonville, N.C.

Disabled Veterans National Foundation, Washington, D.C.

The Mission Continues, St. Louis, Mo.

National Veterans Services Fund, Darien, Conn.
Operation Homefront, San Antonio, TexasVeterans Support Foundation , Silver Spring, Md.
Wounded Warriors Family Support, Omaha, Neb.VietNow National Headquarters, Rockford, Ill.

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 tax-exempt status by checking with the group or by going to 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 75 to 90 percent of the money,” says Borochoff of CharityWatch. Sometimes, he says, charities may end up paying fundraisers more than they take in, leaving the group with a loss.

• 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 sound-alikes. Some low-rated charities have names that resemble those of high-rated ones. For example, there's the low-rated Kidney & Urology Foundation of America of Freehold, N.J., and the high-rated American Kidney Fund in Rockville, Md. "In some cases, sound-alike charities are there with the intent to deceive donors into thinking they are donating to somebody else," says 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.