CNBC's Sharon Epperson explains why you should investigate charities and non-profit organizations before donating and says that an alternative to giving money can be volunteering your time or donating gifts like airline miles or credit card reward points.
By Sharon Epperson, CNBC personal finance correspondent
Giving a gift to charity may be your greatest gift of the season — and it doesn't even have to lighten your wallet. When it comes to charitable giving, I follow my father's wisdom. He always said charity should follow the "three T's" — giving of your time, your talent and your treasure. Here are some ways to do just that:
Share your bounty by volunteering your time
Of all the festivities associated with the winter holidays, many people look forward most to a big holiday meal. There's probably a food bank in your community that could greatly use your time to help prepare and serve food over the coming weeks. FeedingAmerica.org can help you find a food bank in your neighborhood.
Offer your professional expertise "pro bono"
Calling all doctors, lawyers, accountants, nutritionists, teachers! No matter your profession, if you have an expertise, volunteer your talent for a good cause. The website, idealist.org, is a great place to find volunteer opportunities to share your experience.
A treasure worth giving doesn't have to be a cash gift
You can donate appreciated stock and mutual funds. You can even donate airline miles or credit card reward points you've already earned.
Claim a tax break for charitable gift
If you do give something from your bank account, it can also give a little back to you in the form of a tax deduction. Check the IRS website to find out if the charity you are thinking of donating to is a tax-exempt organization, to make sure your gift will qualify for a tax deduction. Generally, to deduct a donation, you must itemize your deductions. Once you make the donation, keep a record. For contributions of $250 or more, you'll need written acknowledgment from the charity. Make your pledge before the end of the year for the donation to count for 2012.
Research the charity before giving
Non-profit organizations may use their moneyin a variety of ways. Guidestar.org and Charity Navigator.org rate charities based on several factors, including the organization's financial health and efficiency. You can find out how much of the money goes to the organization's stated cause versus overhead, fundraising, and other costs. Maximize your gift's impact by taking the time to find how the charity gets and spends its money. You want to ensure that your gift is used in the way that you intended.