3 Things to Know Before Donating Your Money to a Charity

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Americans donate billions of dollars each year to nonprofits — both at home and abroad. That money is essential to helping those nonprofits carry out their missions.

But how do you know that money will be used the way you want?

If you’re donating money to a charity, take a minute to make sure you know where your money is going first.

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3 Things to Consider Before Donating Money to a Charity

If you have the money to make donations — or even if you don’t, but feel strongly about a certain cause — it’s important to evaluate the charity first.

Are donation dollars helping support a worthy cause — or supporting high administrative costs?

You want to get the most out of your donation dollars. Here are some tips to help.

1. Make Sure You’re Donating to a Legitimate Organization

It never hurts to check out the charity’s profile on a watchdog site such as Charity Watch or Charity Navigator.

You can search the organization and find its address, mission statement, tax filing status and total expenses vs. total contributions.

Charity Watch will also tell you how much it cost the charity to raise $100, which can be a sign of the organization’s efficiency (or lack thereof).

Charity Watch gives organizations a letter grade, like A, B or C. Charity Navigator rates organizations on a scale of one to four.

2. Know Where Your Money Is Actually Going

You don’t want your hard-earned money to go into someone else’s pockets — unless that’s who you donated it to.

The number that can help you understand where your money is going is called the program efficiency or expense ratio.

Higher efficiency ratios are a good thing. They illustrate a charity’s productivity in providing services in line with its mission.

A general rule of thumb: The most efficient organizations spend at least 75% of their budgets on programs and services, with the rest going toward administration and fundraising costs.

Finding the spending ratio is super simple. Go to Charity Watch and search for an organization. You’ll see a “program expense ratio” that reflects the total expenses a charity spent on programs relative to overhead.

3. Take Note of the Group’s Nonprofit Status for Your Taxes

When you make a donation, check to see if it’s tax deductible. This is important to some donors because donation dollars can be deducted from taxable income. That means it won’t be taxed.

To determine the status of your monetary contribution, look for the charity’s tax status.

You can find an organization’s tax status on Charity Watch or Charity Navigator. Or simply go to the organization’s website, the IRS or GuideStar.

The two most common tax statuses for charities are 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4).

A 501(c)(4) donation is generally not tax deductible, while donations to 501(c)(3)s are.

As a result, if you’re trying to get a tax break, look for a 501(c)(3) organization before you make your donation.

The IRS has a great resource about charitable donation deductions for those looking to save money at tax time. Read up!

But remember: You can only claim charitable donations if you itemize your taxes. And most Americans don’t itemize.

According to The Tax Foundation, about 87% of Americans took the standard deduction in 2019 instead.

For the 2023 tax year, the standard deduction is $13,850 for an individual, $27,700 for married couples and $20,800 for heads of household.

That means your deductible expenses — including your charitable donations — will need to equal more than $13,850 (or $27,700, if you’re married and filing jointly) to be able to take advantage of a charity tax benefit.

For many of us, that will not be the case.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a former staff writer for The Penny Hoarder. Carson Kohler is a former staff writer.