Instead of doling out gift cards for the holidays, regale everyone on your list with a "Good Card." The recipient visits networkforgood.org, where she can donate the balance to any of the group's 1.2 million registered charities.
Prefer to give a toy or a tie? That's fine—but pick it up at a nonprofit gift store. Many large charities, like The Nature Conservancy (nature.org), The Make-A-Wish Foundation (wish.org), and The United States Fund for UNICEF (unicefusa.org), have online shops that will save you an in-person trip. "When you buy directly from a charity, you're getting something nice for a loved one and supporting its programs at the same time," says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, which provides detailed ratings of more than 5,000 nonprofits at charitynavigator.org.
Simply sorting through the stuff gathering dust in your basement can make a difference. Chances are you'll find things of value for a family in need or a nonprofit. Martha Brant donated a table to her children's preschool for a silent auction. "We can't afford to write huge checks," says the Washington, D.C., mother of two, "but this was something we could do." Aside from your church or day-care center, there are lots of places in need of your donations.
Clothing, toys, and kids' gear: Try your local Goodwill (goodwill.org), The Salvation Army (salvationarmyusa.org), or the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation (mophsf.org). You can drop off at a local chapter or, in many places, schedule a free pickup.
Furniture: Your best bet is nationalfurniturebank.org (enter your zip code to find a local affiliate). These groups generally accept beds, dressers, tables, chairs, sofas, lamps, and other furnishings that struggling families need to make a fresh start.
Cars: To ensure that your donation is tax-deductible, give your ride directly to a qualifying charity. Habitat for Humanity (habitat.org) takes any vehicle, working or not, and will even pick up the towing fee.
Cell phones, PDAs, iPODs, and digital cameras: Recycling for Charities (recyclingforcharities.com) safely disposes of these items and makes a donation to your designated charity. But you pay for the shipping.
Computers, printers, scanners, zip drives, and fax machines: The National Cristina Foundation (cristina.org) matches donors of these items with local nonprofits.
When you're shopping online, start your search at goodshop.com, a portal whose 1,500 participating stores (which sell clothing, food, housewares, books, toys, and more) contribute an average of 3 to 4 percent of your purchase to the charity you choose. Your cause will also earn a penny every time you use the search-engine feature—just download the site's toolbar.
You can put the plastic in your purse to work too. Google your charity's name and "credit card" or "debit card" to see which ones work with it. For instance, if you open a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) credit card, the WWF receives $100 plus 25 cents for every $100 you charge.
Fighting hunger, preserving the planet, and funding your kids' school are all worthy causes, but you'll make a bigger impact if you give $100 to a single organization rather than $25 to four different ones. To find a group that will make the best use of your money, visit charitynavigator.org. Look for one that has a three- or four-star rating and spends at least 75 percent of its budget on programs (as opposed to administrative costs).
Once you've picked one, give to it on a regular basis. You can set up a recurring credit-card donation for as little as $10 per month through networkforgood.org. "Charities prefer this payment method, because then they don't have to spend money trying to renew you," says Edith Falk, chair of Giving USA Foundation, in Glenview, Illinois, which monitors contribution trends.
Start with your employer. Thousands of businesses match the amount staffers give to charity. About one out of six companies also provide a cash grant to a nonprofit on behalf of employees who donate their time to the cause. So by logging 20 hours for a local Meals on Wheels group, you not only help feed the elderly and infirm but also enrich the coffers of the organization, according to HEP Development, a fund-raising advisory firm based in Leesburg, Virginia.
You can also become a mini marketer for your charity online. The Causes application on Facebook lets users request donations from friends. And on Twitter, it's easy to make your case in a tweet and include a link where followers can donate.
Perhaps the most rewarding way to get friends involved is by creating a "giving circle," a group that decides to get behind a specific cause. After her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tracy Brown, a mom of two who lives in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, started a circle for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure's walkathon, which supports breast-cancer research. "We found 15 women to do it and came up with a plan for raising money." The group, named Phi Mammo Grama, held bake sales and yard sales to raise the $2,300 per person minimum donation for the 60-mile, three-day walk.
Some giving circles are enormous. Impact Austin, which supports education, health, family, and other causes in Austin, Texas, has more than 500 members and a board of directors. To join, you must be female and donate at least $1,000 a year. "It's a big commitment, but I really believe in what they're doing," says Anne Webster, a mother of three from Austin. Visit givingcircles.org to find a group that shares your giving spirit.
Make charity pay off. The IRS lets you claim charitable deductions totaling up to 50 percent of your adjusted gross income. Of course most people never reach that figure, but you might be surprised by how your donations can add up.
Cash contributions: You're probably on top of the donations you make by check or credit card, but even smaller ones—like the groceries you bought for the Thanksgiving fund-raiser at your kids' school—are deductible too. You only need a receipt for cash contributions above $250.
Non-cash donations: Clothing, furniture, and other items you give to charity are deductible as long as you get a receipt listing what you gave and the estimated value, says Michael Eisenberg, a CPA in Westwood, California. You can also deduct mileage related to charitable work (up to 14 cents per gallon), but keep a log of where you went and when.