Get Informed About Donations This Holiday Season

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With cold air and holiday shopping comes the sound of red-aproned bell ringers collecting money for charity. While donating cans or dropping some cash in a box is certainly helpful to those who benefit from collecting charities, there are numerous ways to give back during the holiday season.

For the cash-strapped, donating blood is one way to give to the less fortunate. The need is great -- a supervisor at the Red Cross in Portland told WCSH that blood donations decline after the Thanksgiving holiday, leading to an insufficient supply of blood for life-saving procedures.

"We do struggle to meet the need of the hospitals," said supervisor Mallory Roubo. "The need never stops … We are pretty much always in the low to critical."

The Red Cross estimates that 38 percent of U.S. citizens are eligible to donate blood at any time, but only about 10 percent of those eligible -- 3 to 4 percent of the total population -- actually do.

Those who can't donate either blood or money can look into donating their time.

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"Homeless shelters, soup kitchens, senior centers, hospice facilities, big brother/big sister programs, and animal rescues all need people to help out by being physically present and volunteering their time," said Karen Hoxmeier, founder of MyBargainBuddy.com, according to USA Today.

Volunteers can even turn their efforts into financial gain by collecting donations from those who can afford to give. The Chicago Tribune reports that the Salvation Army's Red Kettle volunteer and staff collection campaign is responsible for generating 27 percent of its Christmas season revenue and 12 percent of its total donations for 2016. Most of that money, 88 percent, goes directly to programs in the communities where the money is collected.

If you can afford to donate money but aren't sure where to donate it, charity watchdog websites can let you know where your gift will have the most impact.

Charity Navigator is one of the oldest charity evaluators, according to digital marketing and development company Monday Loves You. It uses a four-star rating systems to rank charities based on income, administrative expenses, fundraising efficiency and other criteria. There are currently about 8,000 charities listed.

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CharityWatch, founded as the American Institute of Philanthropy, is overseen by former Wall Street analyst Daniel Borochoff. The company focuses specifically on gaps in reporting. For that reason, it has gained a reputation as somewhat of a whistleblower for charity organizations. CharityWatch also provides an A through F rating system on the over 600 charities it watches. Unlike some other rating sites, CharityWatch is able to rate social welfare and religious organizations.

Guidestar is a basic evaluator that assesses compliance with nonprofit registration and reporting. It also includes reviews from people who have worked with organizations or received donations from them. The reviews come directly from Guidestar or its partner website, GreatNonprofits.

A newer addition to the market, GiveWell, assesses which groups can offer the biggest impact for one dollar. However, GiveWell is limited to recommending charities based on which ones have efficacy data available.

"The needs are just so great overseas that a dollar goes a lot further there," GiveWell co-founder Elie Hassenfeld explained to NPR. "Donating something like $3,500 to Against Malaria Foundation saves the life of a child [in Africa] who would otherwise die of malaria. The equivalent amount [in the United States] would do something like pay for a couple months of schooling for one child."

Hassenfeld acknowledges that the data-driven approach to choosing a charity isn't for everyone, and that organizations like his appeal to a specific type of donor.

"If my goal were to try to maximize the amount of money that I was able to raise for charity I wouldn't do it via numbers and analysis," he said. "I would do it via pictures and stories."

Testimonials are available on most charity organizations' websites, but going out into communities and seeing the impact directly, as well as listening to the needs of beneficiaries, is perhaps the best way to figure out where to donate this season.

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