NEW YORK (AP) -- For many Americans, the holidays are a time of giving to family and friends -- and to needy people they might never know.
About 80 percent of all the money raised by charities comes from individuals, and people tend to be most generous during the Christmas season. It helps, too, that donations made before year's end to qualified charities can produce tax deductions next April.
Many of the nation's 1.2 million charities and religious institutions are particularly in need this year, having been hurt by the weak economy and falling stock markets. A survey by GuideStar, an online data base of nonprofit organizations, found that charitable contributions through the first 10 months of the year fell or were flat, forcing some groups to cut back on their activities.
Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a new online charity evaluation service, said he believes charitable giving is motivated by ''people's desire to bring about positive change, to feel that they are giving something back to the world.''
There are a broad range of causes people are interested in, he added. The site at www.charitynavigator.org lists more than 1,750 nonprofit groups in nine categories: animals, arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, international, public benefit and religion.
Stamp believes that people should find a charity ''that does something they truly believe in.'' They should check the group out, if not on a Web site, then by carefully evaluating the charity's reports on how it spends its money, he said.
In addition, state governments -- usually the attorneys general -- keep charity registration records, and local Better Business Bureaus track complaints. The Better Business Bureau also runs the internet site www.give.org, which collects information on hundreds of nonprofit organizations.
''If you find a charity that does what you believe in, consider making a long-term commitment,'' Stamp suggested. ''It's nice to give $25 or $50 at Christmas. That's fine, that's beautiful. But if a person can say, 'I'm going to support you for a while,' the charity can do some serious things with your money.''
Chas A. Miller III of New York, who helps set up and run family foundations, said nonprofit groups like corporations have increased efforts to show they are fiscally responsible and that their operations are transparent.
''They are being very forthcoming about the issues, like losing government grants and how they are addressing those problems,'' Miller said. ''Some of this year's appeals are very heart-wrenching.''
He suggested families spend some of their time together during the holidays thinking about which charities they'd like to support, not only on an annual basis but, perhaps in their wills.
There are ways to set up giving programs that allow families to get tax breaks now for donations after death, he noted. Financial planners, tax accountants and lawyers can help set them up so that both the charity and the family get full benefit.
A new book by experts at the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, ''Guide to Charitable Giving,'' provides information on a variety of gifting strategies and their tax implications.
Evelyn M. Capassakis, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and co-author of the book, said one of the best ways to determine if a charitable contribution is going to be tax deductible is to go to the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov and making sure the group is registered as a 501c3 organization.
She believes that charitable giving -- and volunteering -- are likely to increase in coming years.
The population is aging, she noted, and ''older people often find they've got enough money and then want to figure out what best to do with it after they go.''
There's still some lingering effects of the terrorist attacks, she said.
''Sept. 11 got people thinking about the meaning of life, the needs of others, the right things to do,'' Capassakis said. ''That may be losing some steam, but it hasn't gone away.''
On the Net:
Miller's site: www.ForwardFoundations.com
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