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Holiday giving: How to choose a charity

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With the explosion of social networking and user-generated online content, a new crop of websites promises to use similar techniques to help donors, volunteers, and clients assess nonprofits. In some, reviewers are asked to provide commentary on their personal experiences; others poll constituents. It's not fail-safe. But the approach arms donors with information that goes beyond the financial information provided by traditional charity-rating services. It also exposes charities to far greater scrutiny, which some nonprofits have struggled to warm up to.

"It gives you a great feel for what [the experience] is really like," says Maholic, who used a service called GreatNonprofits to check out the charity. "I really got the sense that [Knights of Heroes] would treat them like their own [children]."

Her son, Andrew, has attended two camps with the charity and now receives weekly calls from his mentor. "Andrew's mentor can really relate to him," she adds. "He's been there and knows that sometimes you don't have to say anything."

Previously, donors have relied heavily on GuideStar and other firms that decipher financial data required by the Internal Revenue Service. "While financial data certainly has its place, donors and volunteers should use their heart and their head in making decisions," says Perla Ni, chief executive officer of GreatNonprofits, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "No one has a better perspective on a charity than those who experience it."

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