College Students' Guide to Charitable Giving

charitable givingYou researched what college to attend. You research term papers every semester. You even look up that cute History 101 classmate on Facebook before making your move. So why wouldn't you research a charity before donating your hard-earned money this holiday season? Doing your homework before writing that charitable check can not only help your dollars do the most good, it could save you from becoming the victim of a scam, according to one expert who recently spoke to Money College."It's a busy time for charities," said Sandra Minutti, spokeswoman for online charity-rating website, Charity Navigator. Partly due to the altruistic warm fuzzies of the holiday season (and also to sneak-in tax-deductible donations before year's end), philanthropy goes up sharply during the last six weeks of the year and spikes 22% on the last two days of the year.

Because cash can be especially tight during college, giving-minded Greek organizations, clubs and individual students should research charities before donating, Minutti said. Charities that manage their own finances responsibly are better-poised to stretch donors' dollars, and donating only through legitimate organizations keeps personal information secure, especially on the web. So where should students start?

"The very first step obviously is to figure out what things you're passionate about and be as specific as possible," Minutti said. Be it Pakisani Flood relief, breast cancer research or any of these hot topics, look for a charity that spends the bulk of its money on its programs rather than administration and funding expenses, she said. Find charities committed to transparency and accountability--exemplary ones tend to list financial information on the website, say who their board and staff members are and answer phone calls.

Before writing a check, consider making one of the most valuable yet cost-effective contributions of all: your time. "Charities need talent more than just stuffing envelopes," Minutti said. Volunteering specialized skills to charities and can also earn students resume-building work experience.

Business major? Offer to help a local charity enhance its marketing plan. Charities often need tech-related help, perfect for computer science majors or other tech-savvy students. Although it's free for you, the importance of a charity having extra hands on deck during the busy holiday season "can't be overstated," she said.

Otherwise, look for cost-effective opportunities to combine philanthropy with holiday shopping, Minutti suggested. Options abound for gifts and greetings alike: both Doctors Without Borders and The Conservation Fund let donors send e-cards along with contributions. Animal lovers can donate by shopping World Wildlife Fund's gift center, and coffee addicts (or students stockpiling beans for spring finals week) can support top-rated medical assistance charity MAP International or a host of other groups by giving this fair-trade blend.

Finally, beware when donating online. Not all websites are legitimate--just see the scores of bogus disaster relief websites that popped up after Hurricane Katrina, bent on stealing donors' identities. "As a donor you want to be wary of clicking through any of those applications and providing your personal data," so, instead, let online ads and social media links inspire you to give through legitimate, certified organizations, Minutti said.

"In general, younger people tend to volunteer more of their time and tend to give less money," Minutti said. "Especially because so many high school programs involve community involvement, more people are growing up being philanthropic and carrying that through to their college experience."
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