It's that time of year when our minds turn to giving - either from the wellspring of holiday spirit or from the desire for one more write-off before December 31. Don't let the holiday rush lead you to drop your dollars into the wrong charity basket, though. Give smart this year. Here's how. By Tracy Staton



Wise Donors Do It This Way

1. Never give to a charity you know nothing about.

2. Make sure administrative and fund-raising costs don't outweigh the amount of money spent on programs.

3. Don't contribute on the spot. No legit organization would pressure you to do so.

4. Keep records of your donations, and don't give cash.

5. Tax exempt doesn't always mean tax deductible. Double-check.

6. Don't be misled by familiar-sounding charity names. Some fly-by-night charities use copycat names to fool you.

7. Don't fall for a sob story. Always do your research.

8. Ask if the charity is registered with your state or the feds as required by law.

9. Don't feel obligated to a charity that sends direct mail with free calendars, key rings, or other tchotchkes.

10. Do consider giving generously to one charity you're sure of rather than to several you haven't researched as well.

Source: American Institute of Philanthropy

Don't Give Blindly

These days, donating is like watching cable television: There are thousands of specialized possibilities, many of them no better than the worst Gilligan's Island rerun. Even after you narrow your field - to one disease, one ­social problem, one continent - you'll still confront too many choices. Fortunately, charities (also like television) have watchdogs and reviewers to measure them against various yardsticks. Want to know how much of your money will end up with folks who really need it rather than spent on administration? Or do you simply want a list of nonprofits that are best at, say, fighting disease in Africa? These websites deliver.

Charity Navigator,www.charity navigator.org.
Boasts a searchable, sortable database plus top-10 lists in myriad categories.

American Institute of Philanthropy,www.charitywatch.org.
Issues letter grades for charities nationwide.

Guidestar,www.guidestar.org.
Has a massive database of nonprofit financials. You'll have to interpret them for yourself.

Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance,www.give.org.
Identifies charities that spend at least 65 percent of their money on programs.