I don’t know if it’s still available, but in Pennsylvania, the Attorney General had a section of his website where you could search charities and determine how reputable they are. He even had it broken down according to how much of every dollar you give goes to the actual cause. I think if it’s 80% or better, that is considered acceptable (95% and up I think would be even better), but you would be surprised how many charities apply as little as 10% to the cause and the rest goes for “overhead” — e.g., huge salaries for the directors. As I recall, the Red Cross did not come close to that 80% mark.
We also had problems with the United Way which is supposed to funnel donations to various causes. I used to work at firms which would conduct these drives for United Way and they were not pleased that I wouldn’t give. One of my employers actually put in money in my name just to be recognized as having 100% participation from all employees. I wouldn’t give to United Way if someone paid me. If I want to support a charity, I’ll give directly to it. I don’t need United Way to distribute my donations.
The website/firm you are thinking of is http://www.charitynavigator.org
Many “charities” aren’t. Even well known ones. Agreed on the United Way part. They really pissed off a lot of people. After my own research it looks to me as local church groups and the Salvation Army are about the only ones worth bothering with.