Once you’ve found a charity you like, explore their financial picture. "You want to look at the charity’s Form 990
—the informational tax return that they submit to the IRS. By law, they have to give it to you if you ask," says Miniutti. "If they’re hesitant to give it to you for any reason, that’s a red flag
. They have to provide you the last three filings, if you ask."
Once you’ve found the 990, look at exactly how they use donated funds. "First, know the programs being run," says Kalivas. "How is your money being used specifically? It funds research? It funds education? It goes directly to people in need? Second, you want the money to be going to the charity, as opposed to fundraising or administration. It’s reasonable to spend 60% or more on programs. Our top-rated programs spend 75% or more."
One exception: Churches (including Salvation Army), synagogues, and other houses of worship don’t have to file 990s. "MinistryWatch.com
does rate churches and big religious groups," says Miniutti, but there are few recognized resources beyond that.