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How to Research the Best Charities

As Thanksgiving and other major holidays approach, it’s the time of year where we reflect on our accomplishments and feel grateful for our prosperity. Many of us express that gratitude by making contributions to the causes of our choice. And we find those causes by researching charities that are aligned with our personal beliefs: If we want to help reduce childhood hunger, we may give to a food bank. If we want to help animals, we make a contribution to an animal shelter.

Kids drawing Charity Donate on blackboard

We often give because we see the need in our community, and we want to use our good fortune to help others. For many of us, we believe that someone else’s suffering and pain should be just as intolerable to us as our own suffering — a concept that’s known as radical generosity.

We know one person can’t positively impact every single charitable organization, which is why researching, then contributing to, the best charities or the top-rated charities is important. We want to make sure our money will be used judiciously, and will genuinely benefit those who need help.

If you’ve been thinking about contributing to a charity, but don’t know how to start, here’s an idea: circle the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, on your calendar for GivingTuesday. It’s the one big day set aside each year to celebrate the generosity of giving.

Now here’s another idea: Write down the causes you personally believe in — such as helping people who are experiencing homelessness, improving childhood literacy, or increasing funding for cancer clinical trials — and make a commitment to donating to those charities on GivingTuesday.

If you need help researching charities, or if you’re searching for ways to find some of the top-rated charities, here are five tips on things to look for:
  1. Research charities related to your cause. A good place to start is online. Search terms related to the causes you’re passionate about, like “hurricane relief” or “animal neglect” and with terms like “best charities” and “top-rated charities.”  This should lead you to a particular charity’s website, which should have information regarding how they put charitable contributions to use. If you don’t find that information, that may be a red flag. Try searching for the charity’s name plus “complaint,” “review,” “rating,” “fraud,” or “scam.” If you find bad reviews, you may want to find another organization to support.
  2. Check a charity’s tax-exempt status. Make sure the charity you are considering supporting is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) public charity. Primarily, this ensures the charity follows certain rules, such as it isn’t organized to benefit any private interests, it isn’t conducting illegal activities or violating fundamental public policies, and it doesn’t engage in activities to attempt to influence legislation. If you aren’t sure, use the IRS’s Tax Exemption Organization Tool to search for the name of the charity.
  3. Talk with the charity. Have a conversation to learn about its accomplishments and challenges. Charities unwilling or unable to have this conversation may not deserve your support.
  4. Ask direct questions. Trustworthy charities won’t be offended in the least by these questions — in fact, they welcome them. They want you to know the answers, so you can decide whether you share in their mission and vision. Following are good questions to ask:​
    • What is your organization’s mission? 
      • Healthy organizations know exactly who they are, what they do, and why they’re needed.
    • What are your organization’s goals?
      • Charities that can’t communicate their goals make it hard for you to know what they’re trying to achieve — and how they’ll use your contribution to get there.​
    • What progress is your organization making towards its goals?
      • Ask if the charity can demonstrate how their actions have positively impacted their progress.​
    • What sources are available to increase my confidence in your work?
      • Healthy charities will be transparent; they want to earn and keep your trust, so you’ll feel confident in making your donation. Documents such as the organization’s Form 990 and audited financial statement should be readily available for you to review.
  5. Use a reputable organization to verify your decision. The three organizations below have spent countless hours researching charities. They can help answer which are among the best charities in the country, and which are considered top-rated charities for their fields:
If you want your financial future to include charitable giving, we can help.
If you want to learn more about money management, so you can increase your amount of charitable giving, First National Bank and Trust has helpful tools to get you started. We’re committed to helping you build a path to a secure financial future, so you may then help others if you so choose.

Get started with our free, educational online tool. If you’d like to talk to one of our financial professionals in person, find one of our locations close to you.