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Charity Giving Tips for the Holiday Season

More than 80% of Americans say they have donated money to charity in the last year, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. But it's important to know that your hard-earned funds are doing the most possible good for the charity you selected. Especially after natural disasters and humanitarian crises, donation requests spring up everywhere—even on social media. Here's how to sort through all those outstretched hands.

Don't hit "Donate" right away.

"When you see a natural disaster you immediately say, 'I have to do something,' " says Naomi Eisenberger, executive director of the Good People Fund. "What I tell donors is 'Step back, take a breath, and think about what you want to do, and how effectively you can do it from where you are.' "

Research online.

Use sites like Give.org, CharityNavigator.org and CharityWatch.org to read up on an organization's record, says Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Look up how effective an organization's work has been over time, how long it has been in operation, and what it does with its money. Some groups reserve the right to use "excess" donations for future disasters, says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator. That may be something you want to know up front, especially if you want to control what cause receives your check. Your research will help you determine which group will make the most efficient use of your money.

Go for experience.

"We generally recommend looking for charities that have experience working in the part of the world where a particular crisis happened, or who have provided that type of aid before," Miniutti says. With established networks already in place, these are more likely to make a greater difference than a group with no history of working in the affected area.

Give via web or check.

"Be careful when people are asking for money on the street," Miniutti says. You have no proof of whether they actually work with the group they claim to represent. The safest way to donate is always through an organization's official website or by sending a check straight to the cause you want to support.

Approach emails with caution.

Clicking on fundraising links embedded in an email may send you to a scam website. "Charities spring up overnight after disasters," Taylor explains. "It could just be a site that someone created to look like a legitimate organization." Remember to visit a causes's website directly by typing the web address into your browser.

Be smart on social media.

When platforms like Facebook solicit donations for a disaster, they serve as a middleman between your money and a partner. Double-check that the group is one you support and trust. "Don't just assume that the social media brand has done extensive vetting," Taylor says. Another tip: Don't click on donation links your friends are sharing—find the charity's site yourself to lessen the risk of donating to a scam organization.

Make it tax-deductible.

For donations of $250 or more, you'll need a receipt from the charity specifying what you gave in order to claim it on your taxes. If it's less than $250, a copy of the canceled check or your credit card statement should suffice for tax deduction purposes, per the IRA. Always get a receipt from the charity for cash donations in any amount.