5 Top Charities for Putting Your Money to Work

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Smart consumers put as much research into picking good charities as they do good stocks -- lest their hard-earned cash go more toward a nonprofit's office space or payroll than to actual good works.

"There's not a whole lot of regulation," says Sandra Miniutti of CharityNavigator.org, a website that rates U.S. nonprofits. "State attorneys general have tried to put in place some sort of bottom-line amount that charities have to spend on good deeds, but the Supreme Court has shot that down under freedom of speech rules."

To help fill the accountability void, CharityNavigator analyzes financial disclosures that some 6,000 nonprofits file annually with the Internal Revenue Service, determining how much each group spends on good works and how much covers overhead. The website also grades charities on 17 "accountability and transparency" criteria, from the use of independent auditors to disclosing top executives' pay.

Here's a look at five nonprofits that get CharityNavigator's highest marks among groups that rely strictly on private donations rather than government grants or income from such things as museum ticket sales.

Miniutti says the charities below are all good choices for holiday donations because they need private donations to survive -- and because they all get top marks for financial performance.

All five spend roughly 90% of donations on good works and only about 10% on overhead, surpassing a 75%-to-25% ratio that's considered standard for well-run charities.

"Donors can be highly confident that these charities make efficient use of their donations," Miniutti says.

Fifth-highest score: Feed My Starving Children
CharityNavigator score: 69.14 out of a possible 70

This Christian charity aims to fulfill the Bible's order to feed the hungry by making and distributing millions of "MannaPacks" -- mixtures of vitamin-enriched rice, soy and other grains -- to poor kids around the world.

Developed with help from Cargill, Pillsbury and General Mills ( GIS) food scientists, MannaPacks don't need refrigeration, taste good and require only clean water to make.

Feed My Starving Children expects to this year distribute 153 million MannaPacks -- put together by volunteer groups from churches, schools and businesses around the country -- to the underprivileged in America and some 50 other nations.

CharityNavigator gives the nonprofit a four-star rating, the highest available, mostly because Feed My Starving Children earmarks 87.9 cents of every dollar raised for its stated mission. Only about 12% goes toward fundraising and administrative costs.

Feed My Starving Children also passes all 17 of CharityNavigator's transparency and accountability tests and gets a shout-out for increasing the size of its feeding efforts by some 45% a year since 2008.

" The charity is really expanding its programs dramatically," Miniutti says.

Fourth-highest score: Homes for Our Troops
CharityNavigator score: 69.15 out of a possible 70

This charity builds free handicapped-accessible homes for veterans who sustained serious injuries in Afghanistan, Iraq and other combat zones since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Homes for Our Troops builds units around the country using donated money, building materials and skilled labor.

CharityNavigator gives the nonprofit four stars, primarily because the group spends 88.1% of all donations on good works and just some 11.7% on fundraising and overhead. The group also meets all of CharityNavigator's criteria for accountability and transparency.

Miniutti says Home for Our Troops has also expanded spending on good works by 38% annually since 2008, "and that's quite high."

In addition to getting top marks from CharityNavigator, Homes for Our Troops also garners an "A" grade from rival rating site CharityWatch.org. (CharityWatch, which monitors some 600 nonprofits, doesn't track any of the other groups on this list.)

Third-highest score: Robin Hood Foundation
CharityNavigator score: 69.37 out of a possible 70

Backed by top celebrities and business titans, the Robin Hood Foundation gives more than $100 million a year to New York City antipoverty groups that produce results the charity can measure with Wall Street-style analytics.

For instance, the Robin Hood Foundation boasts on its website that 92% of those who enroll in its housing programs never return to homeless shelters.

CharityNavigator gives the Robin Hood Foundation a four-star rating, as the nonprofit meets all 17 of its accountability and transparency tests and spends 91.1% of all donations on good works.

Less than 9% of money raised goes toward fundraising and overhead, and the group's blue-ribbon board -- whose members range from General Electric ( GE) CEO Jeffrey Immelt to actress Gwyneth Paltrow -- covers that themselves. Everyone else who donates will see 100% of their contribution go toward poverty-fighting efforts.

Second-highest score: Vitamin Angels
CharityNavigator score: 69.68 out of a possible 70

Vitamin Angels provides vitamin A capsules and multivitamins to underprivileged children, pregnant women and nursing mothers in the United States and some 30 other countries. The charity particularly aims to help the estimated 190 million children under 5 who suffer from vitamin A deficiency.

Vitamin Angels estimates providing the world's underprivileged kids with two vitamin A doses per year would cost just 25 cents per recipient but cut global childhood mortality by 24%. The group provided some 24 million people with such supplements last year.

Charity Navigator gives Vitamin Angels four stars, lauding the fact that the group puts 95.5 cents of every dollar raised toward good deeds and just some 4.3 cents toward fundraising and other overhead.

Vitamin Angels also passes all of CharityNavigators' accountability and transparency checks, and Miniutti says the group gets especially good marks for promising never to sell donors' personal information to outside parties.

"Pretty much nothing other than high CEO pay infuriates donors more than a charity selling or trading their contact information," she says.

No. 1 highest score: Orphan Grain Train
CharityNavigator score: 69.7 out of a possible 70

A Nebraska Lutheran minister founded Orphan Grain Train in 1992 with a vision of sending a train through the Midwest to collect grain, ending at a U.S. port to ship it to hungry Eastern European orphans.

Two decades later, the group has sent some 63 million pounds of food, clothing, medical equipment and other aid to disaster-struck U.S. locales and needy people in more than 40 foreign countries. While Orphan Grain Train identifies itself as a Christian charity, the nonprofit makes aid available to people of all faiths. (Orphan Grain Train also uses 18-wheelers to move its donations instead of trains, finding truck shipments more practical.)

CharityNavigator gives the nonprofit a four-star ranking, primarily because 95.8 cents of every dollar it takes in goes toward good works. The group spends only some 4% of donations on overhead and fundraising activities

"In terms of efficiency, I think donors would love to see a charity like this," Miniutti says.

The nonprofit also meets all of CharityNavigator's accountability and transparency standards and has expanded its programs by some 9.6% each year since 2008. "That's really remarkable given the difficult economic times we face," Miniutti says.

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