piggy bank(Photo: CN Digital Studio)

What should I look for before I write a check?
Luckily, the watchdogs (the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator and Charity Watch) have done lots of the work for you so check their sites first. Then consider playing detective—many nonprofits annually file an IRS form 990 or 990 EZ, providing financial and leadership details. Look to see what impact the charity is having and whether it really has enough funds to accomplish its mission, says Liz Livingston Howard, a nonprofit at Northwestern University. A charity should typically spend, at minimum, 75 percent of its money on programs rather than on fund-raiding and overhead. If you can’t find a form, ask the org about its financials directly. 

Watch Video: How to Prepare an Emergency Fund

A friend invited me to a gala—for $500. (Yikes!) Where does the money go?
A-listers in gowns and tuxes garner good press, but galas can squander tons of dough, says Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator. “Often, the majority of the money goes to pay for the event rather than the cause,” he says. And the staff may spend hundreds of hours putting on a good show. Still, splashy events help spread awareness (all those society-page pics), and you get to show the world, starting with your other friends, that you care about this cause. Tell them why, and encourage them to donate, too.

Is it better to give to a charity or straight to a research institution?
That depends on your goal. “You may feel strongly about a clinic for low-income women or lobbying for policies and funding that benefit the cause, rather than direct research,” says Pat Libby, director of the Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research at the University of San Diego. You probably won’t go wrong either way, but remember that even research institutions may be nonprofits, so you’ll still need to vet them.

Money is tight. What else can I offer?
Skills! Nonprofits need administrative help, which takes the burden off paid staffers. Or get involved in the mission: Drive patients to treatments, or work the phones. And keep in mind that even a few bucks can go a long way. Many nonprofits see their coffers run low in the spring and summer. Consider $10 a month for a year—monthly donations help them weather lean seasons. You can forgo two Venti lattes a month, right? Replace them with a different kind of warm, happy feeling.

Be specific. What are some of the best and worst cancer charities?
Breast Cancer Research Foundation
Money well spent: A relatively small staff of about 20 manages to raise about $40 million annually for clinical research, cancer prevention and more. 90% or more goes to programs.
Cancer Research Institute
Women everywhere got a big win after the CRI gave funding to the scientist who developed the HPV vaccine, which prevents cervical cancer. Thanks guys! 85% or so goes to programs.
Ovarian Cancer Research Fund
The organization awarded $5.4 million in research grants this year to scientists who are focused on nailing down how ovarian cancer starts and on developing much-needed new treatments to stop it. 90% goes to programs.

American Breast Cancer Foundation
Its mission sounds worthy: helping cash-strapped patients get cancer screenings and tests. Too bad the majority of donations are funneled back into fund-raising costs. About 25% goes to programs.
National Cancer Center
Yes, several big scientitst sit on the NCC scientific advisory board. Yet almost 80 percent of the org’s money is spent on fund-raising, leaving a measly amount for the cause. Less than 20% goes to programs.
United Breast Cancer Foundation
The problem here is the board: It has three members (ideally, there should be at least five), and because the chairwoman is also the CEO, she gets paid—not cool. About 45% goes to programs.