How to choose a charity this holiday season

Equipment from the Canadian Red Cross is unloaded from a cargo plane at the airport on Nov.19, 2013 in Tacloban, Philippines. Jeoffrey Maitem/Getty Images

Note: This story was updated on Dec. 18 at 12:55 p.m. to include a response from Oxfam Canada.

TORONTO – Canadians learned about Calgary’s Tom Crist this week, the $40-million lottery winner who said he would give all of his winnings to charity.

While it appears that cancer charities will be the main benefactors of his philanthropic endeavour, here are some tips on helping you decide who to give to if you’re in the spirit of giving this holiday season.

Knowing where your money is going is not always obvious. For example, Oxfam America advertises the option to donate $50 for an emergency toilet, but has a disclaimer on the website that says: “Your symbolic gift is actually a donation that will be used where it is needed the most.”

Oxfam Canada spokesperson Melanie Gallant said in an email that donations “almost certainly” go towards the gift you specify.

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“The only instance when this would not be the case is if there is no need for a toilet (or the item purchased) in the designated area, then the money will be used to provide the community with what it needs most, i.e. schoolbooks, education programs, seeds for planting, etc.,” wrote Gallant in an email to Global News.

“This is to ensure that a community does not receive an oversupply of toilets, for example, while not having anything with which to grow food.”

Plan Canada, on the other hand, specifies “Gifts of Hope” such as goats, mosquito nets and “clean water for a family” in its catalogue. Vice President of Donor Marketing Jeff Cornett said these are real, ongoing projects and gifts are specifically to those projects.

“It’s an actual goat,” he said. “We’ve earmarked all of the future money for Gifts of Hope to a very specific project.”

READ MORE: Is quinoa the new goat? A guide to ethical gifts for the holidays

Checking it twice

It’s also a good idea to check on Canada Revenue Agency’s charities database to see if the organizations you’re contemplating are registered and thus eligible to issue donation receipts.

You’ll be able to see the information returns, which include financial information (though the CRA has not necessarily verified their contents). This is a good checkpoint to make sure you’re not donating to a bogus charity.

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If you find it tricky or time-consuming to search for various charities and navigate various websites, there’s CanadaHelps—a charity that aims to make donating online easier for Canadians.

Donors can visit the secure site and search for their charity or topic of choice, where a list of options and organization profiles are provided.

When making your decision, you may also want to consider four areas that Canadian finance magazine MoneySense analyzes when grading Canada’s biggest charities in its annual list.

– Program spending

– Fundraising efficiency

– Governance and transparency

– Reserve fund size

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