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The ringing of the bell outside the grocery store is among the reminders another holiday season is upon us and with it, the annual push by various nonprofit organizations to share in the generosity of the season.

With so many hands out in the form of unsolicited letters, surprise telephone calls and strangers on street corners, it is important for donors to do their homework about where their dollars are going, according to Lake Area United Way President and CEO Lou Martinez.

"You got to be careful," he said.

The Lake Area United Way helped address this by teaming up with the Better Business Bureau to put a stamp of approval on the 30 organizations funded through the agency, Martinez said.

He recommended donors visit websites of tax exempt organizations to review their IRS 990 forms, which report on their mission, program and finances.

United Way of Porter County President Sharon Kish said her agency has also done the work of verifying the reliability of the 38 organizations with which they are affiliated.

"We make sure they are providing the services they say," she said.

Kish suggested donors contribute to local organizations that support their family, friends and neighbors, and have local residents on their boards. She also suggested visiting the organizations.

"Executive directors would love to show off what they do," she said.

There are several online sites available to help donors in their investigations, including GuideStar, which claims to maintain information on about 2 million tax-exempt organizations.

The group is part of a campaign challenging the emphasis on administrative overhead when weighing the value of a charity, Guidestar USA Communications Director Lindsay Nichols said.

"Many charities should spend more on overhead," according to a campaign letter.

Overhead costs, according to the campaign, include important investments charities make to improve their work; investment in training, planning and other internal systems; and efforts to raise money to operate their programs.