'Tis the Season for holiday shopping, lots of eating (which I'm guilty of) and giving to those who are not as fortunate as we are. This is the time of year when a lot of people start thinking of charitable giving, whether it's to a Salvation Army bell ringer with a red kettle, or by donating food to a local food bank. Some people do it because it make them feel good (which I'm also guilty of) and others do it because tax time is just a few months away and those donations are tax deductible. Whatever the reason, it is always a good thing to give something back to the community and help those who really need it.

Several years ago, my family and I were in dire straits. I had been unemployed for six months, and my wife's salary was barely putting food on the table. There were some days that we didn't know where we were going to get our next meal. Of course, back then we were not living a frugal lifestyle, so we lived beyond our means and made things even worse. A few weeks before Christmas, we not only didn't know how we were going to eat, but we also didn't know how we were going to get a few meager gifts for our son. Generous family members who were aware of our situation sent some large checks to us in the mail, and we were able to have a nice Christmas after all. But, something still bothered me. There were plenty of people in our town who were in a situation just like ours.

I went grocery shopping, and packed all of the bags and boxes into the back of the car. I then drove to the nearest food bank, which was run by a Catholic priest who had done some fantastic work for the down and out in our area. He happened to be there as I was dropping off the bags of food. "Why are you doing this?" he asked. "I almost didn't have a Christmas this year," I said, with tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn't believe I was crying over donating food. "I wanted to make sure somebody else was able to have a nice holiday, too." He thanked me for my donation and invited me to come and eat Christmas dinner at the food bank. I declined, but did volunteer to help deliver food to shut-ins on Christmas Day. Even if you can't donate money, you can still donate your time.

Since then, I have contributed to other causes I feel do some great work: Feed the Children, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and Best Friends...which helped rescue pets in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. These were organizations that I either researched or visited personally. In the case of Feed the Children, I have been to their headquarters and met the president and founder of the organization, and watched the trucks of food rolling away from the loading dock.

Not everybody can research their charity of choice that thoroughly, of course. So how do you know your charity dollars are going to good use? It's sad to say, but there are some charities whose sole function is to raise money to pay their own salaries, and very little of it goes to the people they say they are trying to help. Other so-called charities are just blatant rip-offs, aimed at separating you from your cash. In the worst cases, people posing as charities try to get your credit card info and other personal information for purposes of identity theft.

Fortunately, there are web sites like Charity Navigator, which evaluate and grade charities to help people make an informed decision before they donate. Out of my preferred list of charities, Feed The Children and JDRF get four out of four stars. Best Friends gets three stars. Charity Navigator is great because it not only tells you how much money the charity has collected, but how much it actually uses for charitable purposes.

The Better Business Bureau runs another web site where you can check the finances of the charity you plan to donate to. It's called Give.org, and it's part of the Better Business Bureau's "Wise Giving Alliance". This database goes a step further, by noting the salaries of the people who run the charities, along with more detailed financial reports and a list of any complaints about the charities filed with the BBB over the past 36 months.

GuideStar is another service which provides background information on some 1.7 million IRS-recognized charitable organizations. It requires users to register before they use the service, but registration is free.

If background checks on charitable organizations doesn't seem very, well...Christmas-like to you, then there are other giving alternatives.

- Donate money, toys and clothing to the local branch of the Salvation Army, or donate your time by ringing a bell at one of their red kettles. The Salvation Army does great work, and raises the majority of its funds during this time of the year.

- Donate to your local food banks. Many of us take a regular hot meal for granted, but there are hungry people right in your own backyard.

- Tithe to your church. If you have a church, give to it on a regular basis. Many churches run their own faith-based charities and not only do great work in the community, but mission service to impoverished countries overseas as well.

There are some good charities out there doing great work and making the best use of your donations. With a little homework, you can ensure your donations are truly going to a good cause. It really is better to give than receive.


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