With more than 1.7 million charities vying for your hard-earned and well-intended dollars, how do you know where to give and how? “Weve seen cases where as much as 95 cents of the dollar goes to the fund-raising agency, not the charity,” says Ken Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator, the nations largest evaluator of charities—not exactly the most efficient use of your hard-earned dollars. Plus, scams abound during the holidays when, swept up in the spirit of giving, people tend to give willy-nilly. Here, our surprising dos and donts of donating will help you give wisely.

Do concentrate your giving
While we hate to say a few dollars wont help, a $5 donation may barely cover the cost of processing your credit card. Resist the urge to spread your cheer by giving $25 to four different agencies and, instead, focus $100 on one charity, Berger suggests: “More money will reach the cause.”

Do check out how each dollar is spent
According to Charity Navigator, financially healthy charities spend 75 cents of every dollar on programs and services; no more than 15 cents toward administrative costs, and no more than a dime to fund-raising. The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), another charity watchdog, agrees. The groups on its “Top-Rated Charities” list, typically allocate 75 percent or more of their budgets.

Do ditch telemarketers
“If you want your dollars to go straight to the charitys programs, dont give to telemarketers,” says MSN Money personal-finance columnist Liz Pulliam Weston, author of Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life. Indeed, AIP estimates that only about a third of the money given through professional fund-raisers actually makes it to the charity.

When you get a call from a telemarketer, ask for the charitys Web site. Check them out online or through an independent charity-watchdog group like If youre satisfied by the GuideStar report, you can donate through the site. This protects your bank and credit card info, which scammers love to get their hands on, Weston says.

Dont donate your car
The billboards make it seem so easy, promising quick pickup of your junker and a fat write-off. But your tax break is limited to your tax bracket, and the IRS has cracked down on writing off more than your cars fair-market value, Weston says. So if you fall in the 25 percent bracket and donate a $1,000 car, your net benefit is $250. Why not sell the car on your own for $1,000 and donate that?

Don't let guilt guide your giving
Youre emerging from Macys, arms bulging with gifts. How could you not give a few dollars to the person soliciting for a good cause outside the door? Heres why not: “You have no idea if its a legitimate charity or representative,” says Laurie Styron, an analyst with AIP. “And if you give cash, you have no way to make sure it got to the group.”

Don't give to police and firefighters
They serve and protect us, but the fund-raisers they hire may not care about protecting your resources. They often prey on the reverence we hold for cops and firefighters and keep most of the money for themselves. Got a soft spot for those battling danger? “Call the department yourself and say, ‘Id like to donate money or time—whats the best way?” Weston suggests. They may have an official foundation or benevolent fund.

Don't only give during the holidays
Giving at the end of the year limits the resources a charity has to work with and pinches your year-end budget. Instead, sign up for automatic payroll deductions so you can donate each month.