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 problem is particularly important now because about 20 percent of giving occurs during December, he says.

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


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More on Charities

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 programs instead of covering the expense of raising money. 

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 didn't disclose requested information to the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, we didn't include it in our list of high-rated charities, although it may have been included on our list of low-rated 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 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.

Check the group's 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.

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

CauseHigh-RatedLow-Rated

Animal Welfare

American Humane

Washington, D.C.

Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue
Mount Airy, Md.

PetSmart Charities
Phoenix, Ariz.

Noah’s Lost Ark
Berlin Center, Ohio

Wildlife Conservation Society
Bronx, N.Y.

Redwings Horse Rescue & Sanctuary
Lockwood, Calf.

SPCA International
New York, N.Y.

Blind and Hearing Impaired

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind
Smithtown, NY

WonderWork
New York, N.Y.

Helen Keller International
New York, N.Y.

American Council of the Blind
Alexandria, Va.

National Federation of the Blind
Baltimore, Md.

Heritage for the Blind
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Prevent Blindness
Chicago, Ill.

Macular Degeneration Association
Sarasota, Fla.

Seva Foundation
Berkeley, Calif.

Cancer

Breast 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.

Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance (OCRA)
New York, N.Y.

Children’s Leukemia Research Association
Garden City, N.Y.

Pancreatic Cancer Action Network
Manhattan Beach, Calif.

United Breast Cancer Foundation
Huntington, N.Y.

Stand Up to Cancer - Entertainment Industry Foundation
Los Angeles, Calf.

Walker Cancer Research Institute
Aberdeen, Md.

Child Assistance, Protection, and Sponsorship

Marine Toys for Tots Foundation
Triangle, Va.

Abandoned Children's Fund
Santa Rosa, Calf.

Prevent Child Abuse America
Chicago, Ill.

Committee for Missing Children
Lawrenceville, Ga.

Ronald McDonald House Charities
Oak Brook, Ill.

Find the Children
Santa Monica, Calf.

Unbound
Kansas City, Kan.

Environment

Earthworks
Washington, D.C.

National Park Foundation
Washington, D.C.

Sierra Club Foundation
Oakland, Calif.

Water.org
Kansas City, Mo.

World Resources Institute
Washington, D.C.

Health

American Kidney Fund
Rockville, Md.

Defeat Diabetes Foundation
Madeira Beach, Fla.

Hearing Health Foundation
New York, N.Y.

Heart Center of America
Knoxville, Tenn.

Lupus Research Alliance
New York, N.Y.

National Caregiving Foundation
Dunkirk, Md.

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

United Cerebral Palsy
Washington, D.C.

National Hemophilia Foundation
New York, N.Y.

International Relief and Development

Catholic Relief Services
Baltimore, Md.

Aid for Starving Children
Windsor, Calif.

International Rescue Committee
New York, N.Y.

Salesian Missions
New Rochelle, N.Y.

Partners in Health
Boston, Mass.

Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
Evanston, Ill.

United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)
Atlanta, Ga.

Mental Health and Disabilities

The Arc of the United States
Washington, D.C.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation
Schererville, Ind.

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

Autism Speaks

New York, N.Y.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Arlington, Va.

Police and Firefighter Support

American Federation of Police & Concerned Citizens
Titusville, Fla.

Disabled Police and Sheriffs Foundation
Ste. Genevieve, Mo.

Firefighters Charitable Foundation
Farmingdale, N.Y.

National Association of Chiefs of Police
Titusville, Fla.

United States Deputy Sheriff's Association
Wichita, Kan.

Veterans

Gary Sinise Foundation
Los Angeles, Calif.

Disabled Veterans National Foundatio
 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, Texas

Paralyzed Veterans of America
Washington, D.C.

Wounded Warriors Family Support
Omaha, Neb.

Veterans Support Foundation
Silver Spring, Md.

Youth Development

Boys & Girls Clubs of America
Atlanta, Ga.

California Police Youth Charities
Sacramento, Calif.

Girls Inc.
New York, N.Y.

Law Enforcement Education Program
Troy, Mich.

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 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 Daniel 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 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.