Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, offers advice on vetting organizations before opening your heart (and your wallet).

Peter Oumanski

What’s the biggest mistake givers make?
They donate impulsively. Charity scams rely on you doing no background check and making a hurried gift. Spend 10 or 15 minutes doing proper research to make sure that a charity is legitimate and reputable.

What sort of research?
Reputable charities will have an online presence—at the very least, a Facebook page. If a charity does not have a site, that should raise questions. (Go to irs.gov to confirm that a charity is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.) On an organization’s website, look for information on their programs and how they use funds. Then search the local media to see what kind of coverage the charity or members of its board have received.

How should you deal with unexpected donation requests?
Whether it’s a coworker or a stranger asking for a donation, buy some time to first research the charity. You can say, “I would rather give directly online. How can I give you credit for the donation?”

And phone solicitations?
If someone calls claiming to represent a charity, ask them to mail a hard copy letter. Often they won’t if they’re not legitimate. If you see a link on social media, do not click through. It may not take you to the actual charity. Always go directly to the charity’s site instead.

What if you’re new to an area and want to find a local cause?
Ask neighbors or coworkers for their favorite places. Or go to a trusted site, like GuideStar or Charity Navigator, which vets charities. Plug in your city and what type of cause you’re interested in—education, poverty, the environment. The more specific you can be, the better.

How can you include kids?
Actively involve children in the process. Let them help you choose a cause they care about—say, a shelter if they love animals—and invite them to contribute a bit of their allowance to a charity piggy bank each month. At the end of the year, donate it together.

Is it better to give all I can to one place or to spread out my giving?
Aim to give more to fewer charities. Five hundred dollars to one charity will be more impactful than $100 to five. If a certain social issue is important to you, put all your eggs in that basket and stick with it for at least three or four years.

It costs charities a lot to find and recruit new donors. If you’re loyal for multiple years, you’re saving them money.

What if you can afford to donate only a little?
No amount is too small. And smaller gifts can add up for a big impact. Just look at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. People donated small amounts for a total of more than $100 million.

What’s the easiest way to give?
Use a site like Network for Good. It provides a secure link to donate (choose from more than 1 million charities) as well as a snapshot of the organization’s mission, programs, and financials. And if you give to more than one charity on the site, you’ll receive a single receipt, which makes it easier at tax time.

What if you can’t give money?
Be a cheerleader for a charity. Research shows that one of the biggest reasons people give to a cause is because friends and family ask them to. Post about the organization on social media, work an information booth at an event, or hang signs at your local coffeehouse to spread awareness.