1. Be careful about giving to organizations that continually solicit donations over the phone. Tell them you must receive some information about their organization in writing before you will donate. I have done this for years and most of the time I receive nothing in writing from groups that solicit funds in this way. Often questionable charities like these will choose a name that is very similar to another well known and legitimate organization. This can be confusing and is intended to be, so do your homework.
2. Make sure to donate to to an IRS-qualified charity. How do you know if yours qualifies? The IRS lets you search charities online. Also, find out how much of the money received is actually used for its intended purpose. The best ones will use at least $.75 or more of every dollar for the cause and only $.25 or less for overhead expenses. Do your homework before you donate on websites like Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, GuideStar, and Better Business Bureau.
3. Your money will have a greater impact if you concentrate your donations between one or two organizations. If you give money, make sure to keep a paper record of it. Whether it's a receipt from the charity or just a canceled check, you need to be able to prove what you gave.
4. Your giving is not limited to money. You can also help others through donations of items you own. For tax purposes, you need to make a list of all your items and then you have to estimate the fair market value. Fair market value is "What would somebody at a thrift store pay for this item?" and not what you paid for it. The Salvation Army and Goodwill have sections on their websites with lists to help determine the fair market value of goods.
Charitable giving is a wonderful way to serve those in need, and now you have some information to help you decide how best to do it.