Easy ways to check out a charity

More than 90% of American households give to charity each year or volunteer for a favorite cause. Chances are, you are doing it yourself, maybe even two or three times a year. But how do you know the charity you choose is a good one? That's a good question. And the answer is, you can check out a charity the hard way, or the easy way.

What's the hard way? Lots of research. Visit national online resources, such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar, to see how the charity you are choosing stacks up on its financials, governance, and measuring the impact of its programs. It's fairly common for donors to want to know the percentage of an organization's budget going to fundraising, for example. Donors also want to know who's on the board of directors – who are the people making sure the charity fulfills its mission in a financially sound manner?

There's certainly nothing wrong with this level of research.

But there is an easier way. Next time you check out a charity, try these three easy steps, and you'll validate your decision every bit as much as if you were to research the cause extensively.

First, check out the charity's website. Does it make sense? Does it look well organized? Can you find the information you're looking for in five minutes or less? Go with your instincts here. You'll be able to get an excellent feel for the way an organization is run, just by looking at how it presents itself online.

Second, see how quickly you can identify the actual people that the charity helps. Not names, of course, but the group of people who are benefiting directly from the charity's activities. So, for example, at a children's hospital, you will want to know that children are being well cared for. If it's a homeless shelter you're supporting, scan the website quickly to look for stories and information about specific activities the charity is doing to help those in need, beyond broad generalizations.

Finally, and most importantly, ask yourself if you truly love this cause. If it feels good to support a cause, that counts for a lot. Giving works best when it's self-defined, and that means defined by you. The results of your giving will be that much better if you support the causes you love, in the ways you choose to support them. Sure, every once in a while, it's okay to support a friend's cause because you care about that friend, but try to stick with your own personal favorite causes as much as you can. Doing good should feel great--to you.