6 ways to make giving to charity work for you

Benjamin Franklin's face on $100 bill

Your mother always taught you to share with others.

But as adults, we know that mortgages, medical bills and college and 401(k) plan savings make the decision to share more complicated than deciding who gets half of your cookie and who goes without.

What's more, it’s often difficult to choose a charity and to know when to give, how much to give and when to move on to another cause.

We’ve compiled some advice to help you understand why giving back is a good idea and how to make it work for you.

Tip 1. Giving can mean tax breaks. If you give cash to a charity, you can take a deduction when you file your income taxes, provided you itemize.

There are some pretty basic rules to follow:

* Contributions must be made to qualified organizations. You can't deduct money you've given to an individual.

* If you've received something in return for your donation -- like tickets to a charity ball or sporting event -- you can deduct only the amount that exceeds the fair market value of those tickets.

* You should always keep records of your contributions, but for any donation of cash or property that exceeds $250, you must obtain from the recipient a written record of your donation.

* For larger gifts, there are tax advantages to creating charitable trusts and annuities.

Tip 2. Giving means you have control over your money. You can give your money to charity and get a tax deduction. Or you can have more taxable income that the government gets to decide how to spend.

When you donate, you can control who you want to help and where your hard-earned money goes.

"The laws determine that a certain portion of our income and wealth will go to support the social welfare of our country," says Simon Singer, a certified financial planner who primarily consults with CPAs and their clients on charitable strategies. "You’re either going to support it involuntarily through taxes or voluntarily through charity, but either way you’re going to do it.”

Tip 3. Giving doesn't necessarily mean opening your wallet. In biblical times, 10% was considered the golden rule of giving.

While many religions still hold that standard, there’s no one-size-fits-all amount that accomplishes the goal of helping others while protecting your financial security.

There is, however, the right amount for you -- and it might come in several forms.

If you’re self-employed, retired or have more time than most, volunteering your time might prove more valuable than writing a check.

"Do not underestimate that value of your time," says Eileen R. Heisman, president and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust. "If you do not have the personal financial resources to give to your favorite charities, you can offer other means of support, such as volunteer hours, a special skill or other in-kind donations."

If you have less time but more money, try to work with your financial adviser or accountant to determine the amount that will be most beneficial for your bottom line.

Tip 4. Give to a charity about which you're passionate. Aside from the most well-publicized charities, how do you find a cause that fits your lifestyle, beliefs or politics?

In looking for a charity to support, Elizabeth Woolfe, a nonprofit management professional, suggests that you ask yourself the following questions:

* What am I passionate about? If you love animals, perhaps you want to look for animal welfare organizations.

* What are my political beliefs? There’s a political cause out there that needs your support.

* What are the activities I enjoy? You can combine a love of running with training for a 10K to support diabetes, breast cancer or other causes.

Tip 5. Do your research. Rebecca Tekula, executive director of the Helene and Grant Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Pace University in New York, suggests that people look at their philanthropic investments in the same way they’d view other investments.

You’re not only investing your funds, you also need to consider long-term expectations.

In addition to investigating a cause’s website, Tekula shares some of her favorite online resources for researching charities:

Guidestar -- This is a great starting-off point and fundamental resource for analyzing facts, including tax returns and salaries.
Charity Navigator -- This website uses a star system based on evolving and sophisticated fundamentals of the organizations. A great resource for the financially savvy reader that looks at the charities the way you look at a business, based on return on philanthropic investment, return on social investment.
GiveWell -- The next step in evaluating a charity, according to Tekula, the top-rated charities it recommends are proven, cost effective, underfunded and outstanding.

Tip 6. Know when to stop giving. What happens if you feel like you’re being given the hard sell at every opportunity?

National Philanthropic Trust's Heisman advises donors to treat their charitable giving with the same thought and planning as purchasing items at a store.

"No one forces you to buy an item, and no one should force you to make a charitable gift," she says. "You always have to right to say a polite 'no.' "

Worse than the hard sell might be the sneaky sensation that the charity you’ve chosen isn’t quite as it seems.

If you think something's wrong, use online resources to investigate the charity and, if you need to, withhold your donation.

"The very first thing you should do is approach the charity with your concerns," says Doug White, academic director of the Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "If it turns out that you are personally aware of fraudulent behavior, you should contact the attorney general's division of charities in your state. Calling the local newspaper doesn't hurt either.”

Whatever you do or however much you give, donating to a cause you care about can make you feel better about yourself, set a precedent for your family as well as create ongoing tax benefits for you and your family.

What better way to feel better about yourself?

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  • selena

    CNNMoney has a story detailing the "dirty dozen" tax scams the IRS is keeping an eye out for. Worth a read. It says the IRS is on the lookout for exaggerated charitable giving this year.