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Editorial - Give generously, but give wisely

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'Tis the season to give.

Half of donations to charity are typically given between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and the need is greater than ever -- even for basics like food and clothing.

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But there's nothing wrong with making sure you're getting the most bang for your donated buck.

Make sure any non-profit to which you donate is well-run. Ideally the organization applies at least 75 percent of contributions to programs that serve its beneficiaries, versus spending on salaries, advertising, fund-raising and other administrative expenses.

Jason Alderman, who directs Visa's financial education programs, recommends checking out the organization's website, annual report and mission statement, and even asking for a copy of its IRS Form 990, which details how contributions are spent.

Speak to staff members or volunteers, or volunteer there yourself. Or, if you know someone who has used its services, ask for their impressions of the organization's efficiency and helpfulness to clients.

One useful site is Charity Navigator -- which rates non-profits on a four-star system, and allows users to search alphabetically or by type of non-profit.

Alderman recommends taking a look at the site's "Top 10" lists and says the "Tips and Resources" sections provide helpful evaluation tools.

Also, GuideStar offers helpful questions to ask potential recipients and tips for choosing a charity:

A good time to make a donation to a non-profit in Minnesota is Give to the Max Day on Thursday, Nov. 15.

There are plenty of worthy causes to choose from: The website GiveMN.org features every Minnesota nonprofit.

GiveMN markets giving opportunities and donor tools to people who care about Minnesota.

On Give to the Max Day, thousands of Minnesota nonprofits come together to raise millions of dollars in just 24 hours.

GiveMN was designed and launched by the Minnesota Community Foundation in 2009 in partnership with 14 other funders.

It is one of the nation's leading web portals for charitable giving, and GiveMN believes that its success is because it is local.

Reasons to donate online include reduced costs to non-profits.

According to GiveMN.org, raising $1 online costs 7 cents, as opposed to 20 cents for grant writing or up to $1.25 to acquire new donors through direct mail.

Consider opening your pocketbooks this holiday season and donate on Give to the Max Day Nov. 15.

if you can't afford a cash donation but still want to help, why not donate your time?

Numerous organizations can match you up with local charities that suit your interests, including the government's United We Serve site, Network for Good, and Volunteer Match.

A reminder from Alderman: If you itemize expenses on your 2012 income taxes, any charitable contributions you plan to deduct must be made by year's end. That means either charging your credit or debit card or postmarking a check by midnight on December 31, 2012.

You must have a receipt to claim deductions for cash or property, no matter how small. A cancelled check or credit card statement is fine for contributions under $250, but amounts over $250 require a written statement from the charity.

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