Last year, Charity Navigator began tracking whether the charity uses an objective process to determine their CEO's salary, whether it has an effective governance structure, and whether it has a whistleblower policy.
"Do they make their 990 readily available when requested? Do they have a conflict of interest policy? Do they have at least five independent board members? A lot of that are details on the 990," she said.
Lastly, check on their results. "Give them a call, find out what challenges they face, what their goals are, and what their accomplishments are," she said.
But what if it's a celebrity who, by all accounts, is legit? Should consumers assume that his or her charitable organization is on the up and up, too?
Ottenhoff advises caution. "Sometimes celebrities connect with charities and the link hasn't been defined," he said. "This happens a lot with the charities of big-name athletes. Often they start a charity not for charitable purposes, but for ways to avoid taxes or to employ friends and family. The whole Greg Mortensen thing. You had a guy who became a celebrity and he didn't have a governance structure."
Other times, a celebrity might be able to "sell the vision" but doesn't know how to process the money, or deliver on the programs, he said. "Having a good idea only goes so far—then you have to implement it. Celebs get too busy. Somebody could be using their name—the celeb may not know the details of what's really happening."
Mary J. Blige, who is the CEO and founder of FFAWN, took full responsibility for its troubles. She told TMZ that the main problem was that she "didn't have the right people in the right places doing the right things."
The DOJ has issued a list of guidelines to consider before making a donation. These include: Be skeptical of individuals representing themselves as surviving victims or officials asking for donations via email or social networking sites. Be cautious of emails that claim to show pictures of the disaster areas in attached files, because the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders. And don't feel obligated to say yes.
"We're all flooded with requests-email, phone calls, tweets, texts," said Ottenhoff. "There's no reason why you have to say yes. Don't feel like you're personally obligated. Think of the stock market—if you spent your money based on tips people give you you're probably do a lot worse than if you spend your time thinking about what is best in terms of investing."