If you're planning to make a charitable donation this holiday season, make sure you know more about the group than just the name it goes by.

Choosing charities by name alone is a mistake some donors make, and their money sometimes ends up going to less-than-worthy groups. Those organizations perhaps spend too much on administrative costs or are outright scammers, says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the charity watchdog BBB Wise Giving Alliance. The issue is particularly important now. About 20 percent of giving occurs during December, he says.

The best course before giving is to check out a charity with Weiner's group and the two other major charity watchdogs, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.

They can help you feel confident that a group you're donating to deserves your support. Charities differ a lot in how much of the money they raise goes for charitable programs instead of covering the expense of raising money. 

For instance, Connecticut-based National Veteran Services Fund devoted less than one-third of the $8.6 million it spent in fiscal 2015 on its charitable programs and nearly 69 percent to fundraising, according to the group's form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax).  (The group did not respond to our request for comment.)

By comparison, the National Military Family Association, based in Alexandria, Va., spent 82 percent of its $5.2 million in total spending on its charitable program and less than 13 percent on fundraising, according to its 2015 form 900. 

To become accredited by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, the watchdog 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.

CharityWatch, which uses a letter-grade rating system, gave National Veterans Services Fund an F, and the National Military Family Association an A.

“You can get more bang for your buck by giving to an A-rated charity," says the watchdog's president and founder, Daniel Borochoff.

To help you discover charities that are worthy of your support and those to avoid, we've provided a list of organizations the 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 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.

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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.

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

Check the group's website for information about its mission, a listing 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.

Among the documents you should look for, he says, is IRS form 990 or 990EZ, which charities that have total revenue of more than $50,000 are required to file unless they are a house of worship. The form provides a lot of information about how much a charity raises and how it spends its money. You also can find 990s at the charity information site GuideStar (free registration required).

Some of the Highest- and Lowest-Rated Charities

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High-Rated and Low-Rated Charities

Animal Welfare

African Wildlife Foundation

Washington, D.C.

Noah’s Lost Ark

Berlin Center, Ohio

Animal Welfare Institute

Washington, D.C.

Tiger Missing Link Foundation

Tyler, Texas

Keepers of the Wild

Valentine, Ariz.

SPCA International

New York, N.Y.

Petsmart Charities

Phoenix, Ariz.

Red Rover

Sacramento, Calif.

Blind and Hearing Impaired

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind

Smithtown, N.Y.

American Council of the Blind

Alexandria, Va.

Hearing Health Foundation

New York, N.Y.

Heritage for the Blind

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Orbis/Project Orbis  International

New York, N.Y.

Macular Degeneration Association,

Sarasota, Fla.

National Federation of the Blind

Baltimore, Md.

Seva Foundation

Berkeley, Calif.


Breast Cancer Research Foundation

New York, N.Y.

American Breast Cancer Foundation

Columbia, Md.

Cancer Research Institute

New York, N.Y.

Cancer Survivors’ Fund

Missouri City, Texas

Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance

New York, N.Y.

Childhood Leukemia Foundation

Brick, N.J.

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network

Manhattan Beach, Calif.

National Cancer Center

Plainview, N.Y.

Prevent Cancer Foundation

Alexandria, Va.

Walker Cancer Research Institute

Aberdeen, Md.

Child Assistance, Protection, and Sponsorship

Prevent Child Abuse America

Chicago, Ill.

Children’s Wish Foundation International

Atlanta, Ga.

Children Incorporated

Chesterfield, Va.

Committee for Missing Children

Lawrenceville, Ga.

Marine Toys for Tots Foundation

Triangle, Va.

Find the Children

Santa Monica, Calif.

Pearl S. Buck International

Perkasie, Pa.

Kids Wish Network

Holiday, Fla.

Ronald McDonald House Charities

Oak Brook, Ill.


American Bird Conservancy

The Plains, Va.

Cousteau Society

Etna, N.H.

Conservation Fund

Arlington, Va.

Sierra Club Foundation

Oakland, Calif.

Waterkeeper Alliance

New York, N.Y.

World Resources Institute

Washington, D.C.


American Kidney Fund

Rockville, Md.

Defeat Diabetes Foundation

Madeira Beach, Fla.

Lupus Research Alliance

New York, N.Y.

Heart Center of America

Knoxville, Tenn.

Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

New York, N.Y.

National Caregiving Foundation

Dunkirk, Md.

National Hemophilia Foundation

New York, N.Y.

National Emergency Medicine Association

Edgewood, Md.

American Lung Association

Chicago, Ill.

Parkinson Research Foundation

Sarasota, Fla.

International Relief and Development

All Hands Volunteers

Mattapoisett, Mass.

Salesian Missions

New Rochelle, N.Y.


New York, N.Y.

World Villages for Children

Annapolis, Md.

Fistula Foundation

San Jose, Calif.

Operation USA

Los Angeles, Calif.

UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief)

Atlanta, Ga.

Mental Health and Disabilities

Alzheimer’s Association

Chicago, Ill.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation

Schererville, Ind.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

New York, N.Y.

Arc of the United States

Washington, D.C.

Brain and Behavior Research Foundation

New York, N.Y.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

Arlington, Va.

Police and Firefighter Support

American Federation of Police & Concerned Citizens

Titusville, Fla.

Disabled Police and Sheriffs Foundation

Sainte Genevieve, Mo.

Disabled Police Officers of America

Niceville, Fla.

Firefighters Charitable Foundation,

Farmingdale, N.Y.

Police Protective Fund

Austin, Texas


Homes for Our Troops

Taunton, Mass.

Disabled Veterans National Foundation

Lanham, Md.

National Military Family Association

Alexandria, Va.

Help the Vets

Orlando, Fla.

Operation Homefront

San Antonio, Texas

Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation

Annandale, Va.

The Mission Continues

Saint Louis, Mo.

National Veterans Services Fund

Darien, Conn.

Wounded Warriors Family Support

Omaha, Neb.

Veterans Support Foundation

Silver Spring, Md.

Youth Development

Boys and Girls Clubs of America

Atlanta, Ga.

Law Enforcement Education Program

Troy, Mich.


New York, N.Y.

National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League

Wellington, Fla.

Girls Inc.

New York, N.Y.

National 4-H Council

Chevy Chase, Md.

Scholarship America

Minneapolis, Minn.

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 American Breast Cancer Foundation of Columbia, Md., and the high-rated Breast Cancer Research Foundation of New York, N.Y. "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.