There are many ways for a charity to mis-use your money, but don't let that deter you from giving. Much like everything else in life, being well-informed is essential to ensuring your next step isn't into a deep, water filled, pot hole.
Of course, you don't have to give just money either. Your time is just as valuable as money. Indeed, I would even venture to say your time ismost valuable asset you could give to any cause, any organization, and any person.
The Value of Time
Someday, I encourage you to sit down with a homeless person for about 15 minutes. In fact, make that day today. Although, it may end up being longer than that because you wouldn't believe how little people actually talk to them. Maybe that moment of empathy will lift their spirits just enough to render them unto the doorstep of a new life.
Simple, isn't it?
Of course, it's not always so easy to see all the people who need us. Sites like Network For Good help people like you and me – stuck in the narrow vision of our everyday lives – to find organizations looking for volunteers.
Network for Good also allows you to donate money, but I don't recommend that site for financial contributions. They do not guarantee the statements of the charities – not where the money goes, not who receives or distributes the money, and not even if the charity is in fact a charity. Always check the "about us" page of every site you use as a reference, tool, or source.
Dangers of Financial Contributions
I have said it a hundred times, money corrupts. You could even give to a perfectly reputable charity and something could still go wrong – like employee theft. Scammers also mimic successful foundations and well-known charities too.
In addition, charities will sometimes go out of their way for a very particular platform. You should know exactly what your charity stands for and against, because it will might limit who they help.
Even if that platform is somewhat less strict, the members might take it into their own hands to "interpret the law" their own way. There are some Christian charities that do not stick quite so rigidly to the typical anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-other religion, anti-semitic platform – but that doesn't mean its representatives will too.
How Can You Know?
There are plenty of excellent sources on the web for just causes and reputable charities, like Charity Navigator and the American Institute of Philanthropy. You should also check the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance for current charities involved in criminal and civil investigations.
Of course, a little Google search never hurt either. Good luck, and happy giving!