More than 700,000 Americans gave an estimated $264.58 billion in charitable donations last year, an increase of 3.8 percent from the previous year. End-of-year giving accounts for about 30 percent of all US donations, with 10 percent of all US donations occurring between December 29 and 31. “The year-end holidays and self-reflection inspire many people to do something to help those in need,” says Traci Marciniak, president of the Miller-Dwan Foundation. “Additionally, donations made by December 31 can qualify for a tax deduction in the current calendar year.”

Marciniak encourages everyone who gives to a charity – no matter the size of the contribution – to consider him or herself a philanthropist. “It may sound like a word that only applies to those who give millions of dollars, but thinking of yourself as a philanthropist means you take the role seriously,” Marciniak says. When you decide to make a gift to an organization, you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence on that organization. “It’s like researching a car you are going to buy, or learning about a candidate before you cast your vote,” says Marciniak, who has worked for the Miller-Dwan Foundation for almost 20 years. Here are her tips for choosing a charity worthy of your generous gifts.

What’s important to you?
This may seem obvious, but take some time to clarify which causes you are most passionate about. “I recommend families choose one or two charitable priorities, whether it’s healthcare, hunger, animals, or religious organizations, at the beginning of the year,” says Marciniak. “Not only does this focus your giving, but it can help you explain to other organizations why you are not supporting them.” Another consideration is the location of a charity. “I encourage people to give local because I think your gift feels more impactful that way,” Marciniak says. “A donation to the Miller-Dwan Foundation, for example, makes a difference in the Greater Duluth area, which means you are helping people throughout your region.”

Make sure the organization is legitimate
All tax-exempt organizations are registered with the Internal Revenue Service though a form 990, which you can review on the IRS website. “If you would like more information before making a donation, call the charity you are considering and ask a few basic questions about its purpose,” Marciniak says.

How much to give?
Although the average U.S. annual household contribution last year was $2,974, Marciniak says gift amounts are a matter of personal choice and budget. “I like to use the rule of thumb that you should give until it feels good,” she says. Once you have identified a cause and organization you feel passionate about supporting, you may want to consider getting into the habit of giving by contributing small amounts regularly throughout the year, as you would to a 401(k) or other savings account. Also consider asking for donations to your favorite charity in lieu of gifts for weddings, anniversaries or birthdays. “The Miller-Dwan Foundation has received some very generous gifts from kids who have asked their friends to give to programs or departments they have benefitted from,” Marciniak says. “Forming this kind of personal connection with the organization you support is the best advice I can give.”

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