With all this talk of what you could be doing for local organizations that need your help, let's take a moment to make sure you're being smart about it. Despite frequent reports about scams and bad charities, there's no reason to shy away from donating money to groups that ask for your help. Instead, use these tips — and your gut instincts — to find the truly good causes.

Do your homework: Research any organization you're considering donating to, especially those you've never heard of or with particularly generic names. Visit the Washington State Secretary of State's charity listings website (sos.wa.gov/charities), which you can search using the charity name or county. This will tell you whether a charity is registered with the state, a requirement for all groups that raise more than $50,000 a year or have paid employees. The office also has a charity hotline at 1-800-332-4483. For fraud alerts, check the Washington attorney general's site (atg.wa.gov/scamalerts.aspx). Idaho doesn't have a state-run charity registry, but you can check for scam notices on the attorney general's website (ag.idaho.gov). Try these nationwide sites for even more information on nonprofits: bbb.org/charity, charitynavigator.org and guidestar.org.

Ask questions: Washington state law requires charitable telemarketers to state their name, organization and their organization's location, as well as whether they work for a third-party fundraising group calling on behalf of the charity. If they don't give you that information, beware. If they're too pushy, beware. Ask the caller to send you more information about the effort and handle it by mail. "Any legitimate charity will be more than willing to send out information on their cause to try to get a new donor," says Teresa Glidden, who oversees Washington's "Give Wisely" campaign.

Be extra careful online: Social networking has given us more ways to share information about our favorite causes, but it also makes it easier for scams to spread. Glidden says there's no real way to verify the grassroots, person-to-person efforts you'll see, from Kickstarter and GoFundMe campaigns to local car washes and business donations. "That basically comes down to common sense," she says. Look for specifics about where the money will go and what exactly it will pay for. If you're uneasy, Glidden says, steer clear and find a local organization working on the ground that you can check out.

Consider who you give to: With the backing of some of the area's major nonprofits, the City of Spokane and the Downtown Spokane Partnership are encouraging you to think twice before giving to panhandlers. Instead, they want you to direct that money to local shelters, meal kitchens and other organizations helping the homeless, where they say more long-term, transformative change is possible. "They're going to get good nutrition here. ... We have clothing and other outreach. There's lots of staff that care about them," says House of Charity Director Ed McCarron, who notes that more than half of his organization's funding comes from private donations. "We can use this as a conduit to get better things happening to them." Visit realchangespokane.org for more information and a list of recommended charities.

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...