MONEY charitable giving

3 Ways to Make Sure Your Nepal Donations Really Help the Victims

Volunteers give out packages of instant noodles to residents living in an evacuation area set up by the authorities in Tundhikel park on April 27, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal. A major 7.8 earthquake hit Kathmandu mid-day on Saturday, and was followed by multiple aftershocks that triggered avalanches on Mt. Everest that buried mountain climbers in their base camps. Many houses, buildings and temples in the capital were destroyed during the earthquake, leaving over 3000 dead and many more trapped under the debris as emergency rescue workers attempt to clear debris and find survivors.
Omar Havana—Getty Images Volunteers give out packages of instant noodles to residents living in an evacuation area in Tundhikel park on April 27, 2015 in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Before you open your wallet, take a minute to do a little homework.

As Nepal reels from an earthquake that left over 3,000 dead and more than 6,500 injured, people around the world are scrambling to determine how they can best contribute to the relief effort.

Unfortunately, when it comes to natural disasters, making a difference can be more difficult than it might seem. Some forms of giving are more helpful to victims than others, and some charities are better at making sure your donations have a real impact.

Here are three tips for making sure your contributions are used effectively.

1. Donate to Organizations That Make Your Money Go Further

The best relief organizations keep administrative costs low to ensure that the maximum amount of donated funds go directly those in need. Sites like Charity Navigator and GuideStar keep track of which organizations are the most efficient with their money. (Top charities generally keep overhead under 20%, although that number can be higher or lower depending on the kind of work the charity does.) Charity Navigator already has a list of seven top-rated charities planning to assist relief efforts.

Other useful tools for evaluating charities include MyPhilanthropedia.com, which provides expert reviews of charities involved in 35 different causes; and GreatNonprofits.org, a Yelp-like service for crowd-sourced charity reviews from volunteers, donors, and those they help.

2. Don’t Donate Physical Goods

It might seem like a good idea to send blankets, clothes, or food to an area hit by a disaster, but that’s actually not a particularly effective way to help those in need. Postal and delivery services may not be able to access disaster areas, and even when they can, there isn’t necessarily anyone on the other end who is able to distribute the goods. Charities that do have the resources and boots on the ground to effectively hand out material aid generally already have relationships with companies that provide bottled water and other necessities. Charity Navigator suggests selling old clothes instead of donating them, then contributing the sale’s proceeds instead.

3. Be Careful Whom You Trust

In the wake of a major tragedy, people are often inundated with pleas for aid via phone, social media, and email. Most of these requests are likely made in good faith, but it’s important to make sure your donations aren’t going to scammers or organizations that won’t spend your money wisely.

Be wary of telemarketers asking for donations. Instead of giving over the phone line, ask the caller for written details on their organization; if you decide to support it, donate via its website or by sending a check through the mail.

Charity Navigator also urges caution when dealing with email solicitations. Emails from strangers claiming to be victims are often part of a scam, and solicitations with attachments are likely to contain viruses.

And as always, be careful about donating to groups or websites you see advertised on social media. If a particular post resonates, do your research first (using the tools mentioned above) to make sure the organization it’s supporting is actually deserving of your money.

For more tips on how best to help those in disaster zones, see this guide from Charity Navigator.

Read next: Six Ways You Can Give to Nepal Earthquake Relief

MONEY charitable giving

How Average Americans Can Give to Charity Like Billionaires

hand giving stack of cash
Paul Reid—iStock

Gifts from donor-advised funds, which act like foundations for ordinary folks, are growing faster than gifts from billionaires—and addressing critical issues like the Ebola crisis.

Forty-four donors gave gifts of $50 million or more to charity last year. The top 10 alone totaled $3.3 billion. But if you really want to know how America gives, look at the explosive growth of donor-advised funds, which have become a kind of personal foundation for Everyman.

Last year Fidelity Charitable, the largest donor-advised fund manager with $14.6 billion in assets, granted $2.6 billion to 92,000 charities. That was a record dollar amount, up 24% from last year and represents a nearly four-fold increase in 10 years. Meanwhile, the total of the 10 biggest gifts was down slightly last year and remains 20% below pre-recession levels, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

In all, about 1,000 charities offer donor-advised funds and gift about $10 billion a year, according to National Philanthropic Trust. These charities have nearly $54 billion in assets. At Fidelity Charitable, individual gifts last year were as little as $50 and the average gift was $4,100, pointing up the Everyman aspect of these funds. Still, 277 gifts of a $1 million or more came from Fidelity Charitable as well.

Donor-advised funds allow individuals to set aside money on their schedule and realize the tax benefits immediately. The money cannot be taken back but the donor can choose when and where to disburse the funds. This is similar to the way large foundations work for the super wealthy. For example, last year’s largest charitable gift was a $1 billion bequest from Detroit businessman Ralph Wilson, who died in March—he left the money to his foundation, and his heirs will direct the donations.

At Fidelity Charitable, individuals can open a donor-advised account with as little as $5,000. About 60% of the accounts have balances below $25,000. Since the money cannot be taken back, it typically does not sit in the account indefinitely: 20% of assets are gifted each year and 90% are distributed as a grant within a decade, Fidelity says.

Other fund groups offer donor-advised options, including Schwab, which has a $5,000 minimum investment, and Vanguard, which requires $25,000 or more to get started. Many community foundations have set up donor-advised funds to meet local needs; to find a foundation near you, check out this locator.

Typically, individuals use donor-advised funds as part of planned annual giving. But because the funds are already set aside, donors also tend to respond to sudden needs. Fidelity Charitable distributed $5.5 million through more than 1,000 individual grants for Ebola relief last year. Almost all of that came in the fourth quarter—the height of the crisis. Wealthy donors get all the attention. But you don’t need a foundation to act like one.

Read next: How to Get the Most Bang for Your Charitable Giving Buck

MONEY Fundraising

Crowdfunding for a Good Cause Gets Cheaper

Ball picking up money
Getty Images Websites can help you turn small donations into a life-changing gift.

A growing number of sites will help you raise big money for a friend in need. But watch for high fees.

The week before Christmas, a fire gutted the Beverly, Massachusetts home shared by Kevin Wagner, his fiancée and their four young children. Most of their basic possessions were destroyed along with their Christmas presents.

While insurance will cover much of the rebuilding, friends stepped in right away with cash to fill the gap until the claim is settled. As is becoming more common these days, they started crowdfunding campaigns on popular sites—one on DreamFund.com, which holds money in an FDIC-insured savings account, and another on GoFundMe.com, which is linked to a personal bank account. Both sites collect a 5% fee from the donations and pass along a credit card processing fee of about 3%.

For the $25,000 Wagner’s friends raised on DreamFund, that amounts to $2,000, and another $800 went to GoFundMe and its credit card processors for the $10,000 raised on that platform.

A few people were put off after learning about the fees, Wagner says, and simply handed him checks, which added another $10,000 to the effort.

Nevertheless, raising money for personal causes through crowdfunding sites is a skyrocketing business—GoFundMe says such fundraising campaigns increased by 291% between 2013 and 2014, after rising by more than 500% the year before. But the fees make it clear the platforms themselves are, indeed, businesses rather than purely charitable efforts.

More than 2,000 crowdfunding sites have sprung up to try to catch the wave of this rapidly growing industry, says Howard Orloff, vice president of Zacks CF Research and founder of Crowdfunding-Website-Reviews.com. Of those, many are start-ups with little staying power and many are aimed at businesses seeking capital rather than personal causes. Some, like Kickstarter, one of the best known sites, don’t allow personal fundraising.

Regardless of type, the sites make money by taking a percentage of pledges, which results in either a donation being reduced when it reaches the recipient or a surcharge added to the donor so the recipient gets the net amount pledged.

But when it comes to raising money for charity, that may be changing.

On Dec. 15, popular crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which typically charges 4% to 9% (plus fees for PayPal or credit card processing), decided to drop the fee for personal fundraisers. Users of its new IndiegogoLife service only have to sacrifice the 3% taken by the credit card processors.

Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann says the company didn’t want those who were in need of charity to be subject to the same charges as those trying to launch a business.

“Every dollar counts—we’ve heard that again and again and again,” she says.

Dropping that platform fee is a “game-changer” in the world of crowdfunding, Orloff says. “Smaller sites [like YouCaring.com and Tilt.com] have offered no-fee crowdfunding for a while but none with website traffic, and public trust, anywhere near Indiegogo.”

By contrast, collecting the old-fashioned way—by accepting cash in person or checks to be deposited in a bank—usually involves no extra costs, although some banking fees may apply depending on the kind of account you choose.

But real-world collecting like that has limitations of reach, and not much possibility of the campaign going viral.

With crowdfunding, if the cause is popular enough to land on the home page of one of the more popular sites “it can go pretty wild,” Orloff says. “It can change somebody’s life.”

Indeed, the campaign to raise money for Wagner and his family went far beyond the $5,000 he imagined—the $50,000 raised so far may actually be more than they need.

“We didn’t expect this at all,” Wagner says. “If there is extra , we want to help others. We hope to pay it forward.”

MONEY charitable giving

The Number One Reason Not to Sleep In on Monday

Volunteers paint walls and paint murals all over Coolidge High School during the Martin Luther King Day of Service organized by City Year in honoring the legacy of Dr. King in Washington DC on Monday, January 20, 2014.
Melina Mara—The Washington Post/Getty Images Volunteers paint walls and paint murals at Coolidge High School during the Martin Luther King Day of Service in Washington D.C. in 2014.

You can spend your day away from the office honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by volunteering in your community instead.

All government agencies and many private businesses will be closed this Monday to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but don’t let the appeal of a three-day weekend overshadow the purpose of the day.

Established as a federal holiday in 1983, MLK Day was designated a National Day of Service by Congress in 1994. Across the country, volunteer groups turn Monday into “a day on, not a day off” by building community gardens, distributing food, sprucing up schools, and helping the homeless.

If you’re interested in volunteering but don’t know where to begin, websites like volunteermatch.org, idealist.org, and allforgood.org can connect you with opportunities in your area. And if you are in or near one of these eight major U.S. cities, check out this list of resources and nonprofits hosting MLK Day events.

Atlanta

Chicago

Houston

Los Angeles

New York City

Phoenix

Philadelphia

Washington, D.C.

Beyond volunteering, you can also attend or host an America’s Sunday Supper. In the spirit King’s desire to encourage deep personal relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, Sunday Suppers have become an important part of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If you’re interested in hosting a dinner, which can range in size from large events at community centers to intimate gatherings at local restaurants, the Points of Light Foundation provides toolkits that includes invitations, celebrity chef recipes, and conversation starters.

MONEY Taxes

Congress Delivers a Few Last-Minute Tax Breaks

A last-minute bill restores a break for charitable giving, the sales tax and tuition write-offs, and more.

The U.S. Congress, in its wisdom, waited until the waning weeks of the year to approve some tax breaks that will only be good for 2014.

That means that in some cases, you lost out: it is too late to take advantage of them and you are going to lose them at the end of the year.

But there are a handful of provisions that may benefit some taxpayers who have special situations and can act quickly to lock in their breaks, once President Barack Obama signs the tax extenders bill as he is expected to do soon.

In addition to the usual year-end moves—make your charitable contributions, feed your individual retirement account, take your investment losses—consider this short list of limited-time strategies:

Give away part of your IRA. There is a special situation for people who face mandatory minimum distributions from their retirement accounts, but do not itemize their tax deductions, and as a result, can’t write off charitable contributions. They can avoid taxes on their IRA distribution by transferring it directly to a charity, suggests Greg Rosica, a partner with Ernst & Young.

This provision expires on Dec. 31, however, and it is unclear whether it will be renewed next year. Taxpayers in high tax brackets who do not itemize may want to transfer more than the minimum to get money out of their IRA and cover gifts they would otherwise make in subsequent years: under this rule, you can transfer as much as $100,000. So contact your favorite charity and make sure they can effect the rollover before year-end.

Buy your boat. Congress also extended, just through the end of 2014, the provision that allows taxpayers to deduct their state sales taxes from their taxable income instead of deducting their state income taxes. In places like Florida where there is no state income tax, that is a benefit that can be worth a lot. If you’ve had your finger on the “buy” button for a new boat, car, or other expensive item, you might save significantly by buying it this year, says Rosica, one of the authors of the voluminous EY Tax Guide 2015.

Make a tuition payment. Even people who do not itemize deductions are allowed to write off up to $4,000 in tuition and education expenses if their income falls under certain levels. You may have already spent that much on qualified education costs this year. But if you have not—and you expect to be ponying up for spring semester—make that payment before 2014 ends.

Talk to your human resources department about that commuting benefit. For almost all of 2014, employers operated under the clearly inequitable (and environmentally unfriendly) rule that people who used mass transit could set aside pre-tax income of up to $130 a month for commuting costs, but those who drove to work could set aside $250 a month for parking. Now Congress has equalized those two benefits at $250 per month for all of 2014—but this year alone.

For many workers at large companies, it is too late to get an additional $1,440 taken out of their pay for commuting costs this year. That’s too bad, because it could save some people more than $600 in state, federal and Social Security taxes. If you have a more flexible HR department, go ask for a make-up withdrawal. You could always load your farecard for next year when Congress may go through this exercise again.

MONEY Taxes

10 Last-Minute Ways to Save on Your Taxes This Year

woman donating clothes
JGI/Jamie Grill—Getty Images Clean out your closet by Dec. 31 and cut your tax bill.

In between your holiday shopping and New Year's plans, make time for these time-sensitive tax moves.

The window of time to cut your 2014 tax bill is closing. Before you pop open the champagne on New Year’s Eve, make sure you’ve ticked off these valuable tax tasks.

1. Be Charitable Now

Individual Americans donate some $250 billion dollars to charity every year, according to the annual Giving USA report, and December is high season for giving.

By donating to charity, you can trim next your tax bill next April. You must itemize to get a write-off, and the organization must be a qualified charity. Check at IRS.gov.

Then you simply need to get a check in the mail by Dec. 31. Or put the gift on a credit card before year-end and pay the bill in January. Make sure you have a receipt, be it a cancelled check or your credit-card statement. But if you donate $250 or more, you must get a written record from the charity.

If you give away clothes or stuff from around the house, you’ll be able to deduct the fair market value, as long as the goods are in good condition or better.

“The end of the year is a great time to donate some items to charity,” says financial planner Trent Porter. “Your good deed will be rewarded with a bigger tax refund and a clean closet”

2. Be Charitable Later

If you’re in search of a big deduction in 2014, but you’re not ready to support a single charity now, here’s a good option. With as little as $5,000, you can set up a donor advised fund with a brokerage of fund company such as Fidelity or Schwab. You get the upfront tax savings, the money is invested, and you can then donate a portion of the fund to the charities of your choice for years to come.

“These accounts make it easy to use appreciated securities and other assets to fund your philanthropy, thus avoiding paying capital gains tax on the appreciation,” says financial planner Eric Lewis.

3. Invest in Education

A year of tuition and fees at even a public college will cost you more than $23,000 today. You need all the tax breaks you can get.

If you’re saving for school in a 529 college savings plan, that money grows tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as the money goes toward higher ed.

You can’t deduct those contributions on your federal return. But in 34 states and the District of Columbia, you can qualify for at least a partial deduction or a credit on your state tax return, as long as you fund the account by Dec. 31. Look up your state’s rules at savingforcollege.com.

4. Speed Up Deductions

A popular strategy for cutting your tax bill is to move up as many deductible expenses as you can. This is especially smart if your income will be high this year—say you cashed out winning investments or sold property.

One simple way is to donate more to charity. You can also make your January mortgage payment in December, which will give you extra interest to deduct. You could also prepay your property taxes, or send in estimated state and local taxes that you would otherwise pay in January. Or pay next year’s professional dues and subscriptions to trade publications.

Don’t employ this strategy, however, if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in 2015. In that case, the deductions will be more valuable to you next year.

5. Top Off Retirement Plans

In 2014, you can save $17,500 in a 401(k) plan, or $23,000 if you’re 50 or older. If you haven’t saved that much, see if your employer will let you make an extra lump-sum contribution before Dec. 31. If you can’t, make sure you hit the max next year by raising your contribution rate now. The limit will rise to $18,000 in 2015, or $24,000 if you’re 50 or older.

You have until next April 15 to fund a traditional or Roth IRA for 2014, but the sooner you save the more time you’ll have to get the benefit of tax-deferred growth. What’s more, planning ahead might make for better investment choices. A recent Vanguard study found that last-minute IRA investors are more likely to simply park the money in cash and leave it there.

You can contribute $5,500 dollars to an IRA in 2014, or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older.

If you run your own business and want to save in a solo 401(k), you must open that plan by Dec. 31, though you can still fund it through next April 15.

6. Look for Losers

Nearly six years into this bull market, long-term stock investors are sitting on big gains. Maybe you cashed in a profitable stock or mutual fund this year. Or you trimmed back your winners when you rebalanced your portfolio. Unless you sold within a retirement account, you’ll face a tax bill come April. And the best way to cut that is to offset your investment gains with investment losses.

By pairing gains with losses, you can avoid paying capital gains taxes. If you have more losses than gains, you can use up to $3,000 worth to offset your ordinary income, and then save the rest of the losses for future years.

However, don’t let tax avoidance get in the way of sound investing. You should sell a stock or fund before year-end because it doesn’t fit with your investing strategy, not just because you have a loss.

If you want to buy the investment back, you must wait 31 days. Do so sooner, and the IRS will disallow the write-off (what’s called the “wash sale” rule).

7. Part With Big Winners

If you donate winning stocks, bonds, or mutual funds directly to a charity, you can enjoy two tax breaks. You won’t owe any taxes on your capital gains. And you can deduct the full market value of the investment on your 2014 return.

8. Tap Your IRA

With a tax-deferred plan like an IRA, once you hit age 70 1/2 you must take out some money every year. You have to take your first distribution by April 1 the year after you turn 70 1/2. Then the annual deadline for your required minimum distribution, or RMD, is Dec. 31.

This rule doesn’t apply to Roth IRAs, and if you have a 401(k) plan and you’re still working, you can usually wait until you do retire to start withdrawing money.

The IRS minimum is based on your account balance at the end of last year and your current life expectancy. Your broker or adviser can help you with the calculation, but you’re responsible for making the withdrawal. If you fail to do so, you’ll owe a 50% penalty on the amount you should have withdrawn.

You can also donate your RMD directly to charity and avoid paying income taxes on the withdrawal. In mid-December, Congress extended that rule, which had expired, for at least one more year.

9. Spread the Wealth

Making outright gifts is a smart move tax-wise, says Ann Arbor financial planner Mo Vidwans. Your heirs are less likely to face estate taxes down the road—and you can help out your kids or grandchildren when they need it the most. In 2014, you can give as many people as you want up to $14,000 tax-free. If both you and your spouse both make gifts, that’s $28,000.

If you’re funding 529 plan, you can frontload five years worth of gifts and put $70,000 into a child’s account now.

10. Pay Taxes Now and Never Again

With a traditional individual retirement account, your contributions are tax deductible, but you’ll owe income taxes on your withdrawals. A Roth IRA is the opposite: You invest after-tax money, but your withdrawals are 100% tax free.

Before year-end, you can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth. You’ll have to pay taxes on the conversion in 2014. But then you’ll never owe taxes on that money again.

Converting to a Roth is an especially smart move if your income was down this year and you’re in a low tax bracket. “If you have a low-income year, do a Roth conversion,” says New York City financial planner Annette Clearwaters. “Whenever I see a tax return with negative taxable income I cringe, because it’s such a wasted opportunity.”

And if you later change your mind, you have until the extended tax-filing deadline next October to switch back to a traditional IRA. Clearwaters recommends undoing any conversion that puts you above the 15% federal tax bracket.

Update: This post was updated to reflect Congress’s extension of the rule allowing for direct charitable donations of RMDs.

MONEY charitable giving

How to Get the Most Bang for Your Charitable Giving Buck

Katherina Rosqueta
Joe Pugliese

Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, explains how you can make a meaningful difference with your charitable dollars, even if you don't have Bill Gates' money.

Katherina Rosqueta, 47, is executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. She has led the center, which provides analysis and educates individuals on how to maximize the social impact of their charitable donations, since its founding in 2006. MONEY senior writer Donna Rosato interviewed Rosqueta for the December 2014 issue, from which this Q&A is adapted.

Should I change how I give to charity?
Maybe. It depends on your motives. If you want to make a big impact, it’s not about the money you give. It’s about how well you give that money. The biggest misconception people have is that good intentions and a lot of money mean a lot of impact.

You need to move away from the focus on financial inputs, like how much money a charity has and what its overhead costs are. Instead, focus on the change you want to create, the actual impact. Is it helping people who have lost everything in a major disaster? Getting a child to read at grade level? Ask yourself where you can get the most bang for your buck. Be clear on the results you’re trying to achieve. Then sup­port organizations that are doing that.

Still, I don’t have Bill Gates’ money. Can I really make an impact?
Funders with more resources than you are often addressing bigger, more capital-intensive problems, like developing a new vaccine. But you can make a meaningful difference with a lot less money. It costs $150 to provide home-based health care to poor families in rural India. To help just one newborn, it’s $7. You could be saving a child’s life. The key is finding organizations that are using your money to the maximum effect.

How can I find a charity that is getting results?
There’s no one-stop shop. Sites such as charitynavigator.org, give.org, and guidestar.org let you know whether charities are legit and how much they spend on operations. Other sites, such as myphilanthropedia.org, focus on particular issues and help you judge which organizations have the most impact and cost-effectiveness.

At our center, one thing we do is research which practices lead to the most change. We then identify organizations that use those practices in specific areas such as hunger and urban revitalization. For example, we found that community groups can make a difference with simple landscaping and maintenance of vacant lots. In a program in Philadelphia, gun-related crimes fell 7% and property values rose 17% in neighborhoods where lots were cleaned, greened, and maintained—all for about $1,100 a year per lot.

So have these sites solved the problem of judging effectiveness?
No. There are more than 1 million nonprofits registered in the U.S.  What we do is very labor-intensive. No one has the capacity to evaluate the ongoing results of every nonprofit.

In that case, how should I evaluate a small local charity like a theater group or an animal shelter?
First, do a search on charity-screening sites and Google to check that it’s a registered nonprofit and to see whether there are concerns about fraud or misuse of funds. As for results, ask why this organization exists. Is the group’s goal to enhance the quality of arts and culture in your town? Go to a show and see how many people attend. If you count 10 people, that’s not much of an impact. Or get involved directly. Volunteer to walk dogs at the local shelter. Spend time within a nonprofit to observe its work and see how well it’s run.

Many people spread their giving around. Is it more effective to focus on one charity?
There are always tradeoffs, but spreading out your donations can be quite helpful. If you’re new to an issue, donating to several charities involved in that cause is a smart way to learn how different organizations work. You can decide later if you want to concentrate your giving on one.

What about giving to my college? Why should I if a super-wealthy class­mate is writing huge checks?
Often people give to their college because they feel gratitude for what they got from the school, not because of the impact their donation will have. Giving to your alma mater just serves another purpose.

Let’s talk about a crisis in the news: the Ebola epidemic. How can I help?
There are two types of organizations to consider for a crisis of this scale. The first are large international aid organizations that bring really specialized skills, like Doctors Without Borders. They are first responders who have the networks and experience to work in really tough settings. But they alone can’t solve it. You need organizations working in the region that know the local culture, geography, and language. You need both a top-down and bottom-up approach.

How do I find these bottom-up organizations?
Most of the time you can’t do it yourself. You have to rely on folks like those in our center and others with local connections. But if you yourself know people who work in an affected region or have personal ties to it, they can be a good source of information on what is working.

How should I respond to the next major natural disaster?
Often the best thing to do is send money. When there is a natural disaster, one impulse is to send donated items—food, blankets, or clothes. But needs change quickly. By the time these things arrive, there may be more urgent concerns.

If you know there’s a need in your local community for a specific item and you have an efficient way to get the goods there, you should do it. If you don’t have direct knowledge, what you donate may take up precious space, create transportation costs, and use up volunteer time moving and storing items that aren’t needed.

Many people give to the Red Cross after a natural disaster. A recent report, however, alleged serious problems with the group’s response to Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy in 2012. So what should people do now?
I don’t know enough to say whether you should stop donating to the Red Cross. But you shouldn’t give to an organization you don’t trust. If the only information you have about an organization is that it isn’t using money well, then don’t give.

Disaster relief can be an especially difficult area for giving. Some of that is due to the inherent chaos in the immediate aftermath of any disaster. Organizations that are seen as a “go-to” in times of disaster have increased responsibility to earn donors’ trust by providing a high level of transparency and accountability.

At this time of year, people think a lot about charitable donations. What advice do you have for getting the most out of seasonal giving?
Plan your giving before the busyness of the season takes over. Treat it like an investment decision rather than an impulse buy.

We just published our annual year-end giving guide, which identifies six high impact giving opportunities and provides advice on how to make your giving have a bigger impact throughout the year.

Is there an amount that makes us feel good about giving?
There’s not a particular number. But a lot of research finds that people who give and volunteer are happier and more successful.

Listen to more of Rosqueta’s advice about effective giving:

MONEY Taxes

9 Rules for Tax-Smart Charitable Giving

donating money to box
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

When you support a good cause, make sure you also get the tax benefits you deserve.

Year-end is peak charitable giving season. To make sure your generosity pays off on next April’s tax return, know the rules for writing off your donations.

You have to itemize deductions. Sorry, but if you take the standard deduction, you can’t write off your gifts to charity on top of that.

You need to give to a legit charity. To check if a nonprofit is a qualified charity in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, use the IRS’s Select Check tool. You can also deduct donations to your church, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

You can donate right down to the wire. For a gift to qualify for a deduction, you simply need to get your check in the mail by December 31. Need more time? You can put your gift on a credit card before year-end and then pay the bill in January. (Keep in mind, though, that when you pay by credit card, processing fees may reduce the value of your gift.)

You should save your backup. Make sure you have a receipt for your gift. A cancelled check or credit card statement may be enough. But if you make a donation worth $250 or more, you must get a written acknowledgment from the charity.

Your time can be worth money. As a volunteer, you can’t deduct the value of your time. But you can deduct 14¢ for every mile you drive as part of your volunteer work, so keep track.

You shouldn’t take credit for giving away actual junk. If you donate clothes or household items, you’ll be able to deduct the fair market value—as long as the items are in good condition or better. Keep any paperwork you have for valuable items, and take photos of your donations for your records. It’s up to you, not the charity, to assign a value to your stuff. To do that, you can use thrift store guides published by the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and others, or the ItsDeductible app.

You can’t inflate the value of your old car. When you donate your old wheels to charity, your deduction is generally limited to what the nonprofit brings in by selling your car, not the Kelley Blue Book value. Plus, when you donate a car or other property worth more than $500, you’ll need to file IRS Form 8283.

You can get two tax breaks if you donate winning investments. Another way to save on taxes is to give highly appreciated stocks, bonds, or mutual funds directly to a charity. You won’t owe any taxes on your capital gains. And you can deduct the full market value of the investment as a charitable gift.

You can contribute a big sum now and give it away later. If you open what’s called a donor-advised fund, you can deduct the entire gift on your 2014 tax return and parcel out the money to good causes later. With as little as $5,000, you can open a donor-advised fund at firms such as Fidelity or Schwab.

More tax tips from MONEY 101:
When does it makes sense to itemize?
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TIME Parenting

What Bill Gates’ Kids Do with their Allowance

How do you teach insanely wealthy kids how to manage money?

The rich are different from you and I, but they still want to give their kids an allowance. So what do the world’s richest man’s kids do with their money? Melinda Gates came to TIME’s offices to talk about her new focus on women and children and especially on contraceptives, but she spilled some secrets about how she tries to get her kids to be purposeful with their money.

First of all, she tries to be true to her values, to articulate them and live them out. Then, they do a lot of volunteering together, at “whatever tugs at their heartstrings” says Gates. And of course, they’ve traveled with her. “They have that connection I think to the developing world,” she says. “They see the difference a flock of chicks makes in a family’s life. It’s huge.”

Read the 10 Questions with Melinda Gates here

Gates has always made a point of getting into the streets and poorer neighborhoods when she travels for meetings and conferences. And sometimes she takes her kids. It’s there, she says, that she meets mothers who tell her that their biggest struggle is having so many children. Although Gates was raised Catholic, she is heading up an initiative to get family planning information, contraceptives and services to 120 million more women by the year 2020. That includes new technology, better delivery system and a lot of education, including for men.

She’s similarly rigorous about her home life. Her kids save a third of their allowance and designate a charity they’d like to give it to. (They can also list donations to charities on their Christmas wish list.) As further incentive, their parents double whatever money they’ve saved. Which means they may be the only children in the world to get a matching grant from the Gates Foundation.

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