1. Don't be a control freak.
Instead of checking the box that funnels your contribution to a particular region, project, or disaster, give whatever you can and let the organization decide what to do with the money. Being prescriptive about funds might be personally satisfying, but it can get in the way of operations. And that translates into cost. One way to think of it: "When you buy stock, you don't tell the company how to spend your money," says Ken Stern, the author of With Charity for All and the CEO of Palisades Media Ventures, a media-development company in Washington, D.C. "Treat charitable contributions the same way—as an investment in social good." Trust the experts to make the most of what you can donate.
2. Give where you really care.
This makes it easy to vet a charity's effectiveness. (Because it doesn't feel like a chore to read about something that matters to you.) Check the organization's website for three things: (1) its goals, (2) its strategies for achieving those goals, and (3) data demonstrating success. If you're a numbers-type person, get a snapshot of an organization's expenses and activity at charitychecker.com.
3. Donate to only one or two charities once a year.
It's a nice impulse to spread out your giving. But Phil Buchanan, the president of the nonprofit Center for Effective Philanthropy, points out that, because of transaction costs, focused giving is more powerful. Say a nonprofit pays a dime to process each donation. If you give 20 $25 gifts, $2 is lost to transaction costs. But if you make one donation of $500, only a dime goes to these costs. When you want to make every penny count, that matters.