Heifer International Cows

According to a recent survey, animals and their welfare rank high among Americans for causes worth contributing to — third, in fact.

So at this time of year, when holiday cheer meets end-of-year tax tinkering, it only makes sense to offer you a post on animal charities. Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy to tell where your hard-won dollars are best allocated.

With that challenge in mind, I’ve listed some well-recognized dos and don’ts of charitable giving, as well as a list of my favorite animal causes.

Do … check out the charity. A good place to start is with a charity evaluator, such as the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance (rates more than 1,200 national groups), the American Institute of Philanthropy (rates about 525 U.S. charities) and Charity Navigator (rates more than 5,300 national and international organizations).

Don’t … base your decision on ratings alone. Evaluations are based on financial performance and corporate governance, but not necessarily on how well charities accomplish their goals. Moreover, it’s clear that these reviews aren’t perfect. For example, simple accounting technicalities can throw a charity’s ratings into the gutter, while other charities have learned how to game the ratings system in their favor.

Don’t … fail to recognize that plenty of great charities aren’t necessarily rated by evaluators. Luckily, there are other ways of assessing charities, such as reading an organization’s mission and position statements, and then trying to find out as much as you can about at least one of the programs that the charity has undertaken.

Do … follow your heart — once you’ve done your homework and a bit of critical thinking, of course.

To that end, here are my five favorite animal charities for 2012:

Animal Legal Defense Fund

This high-marks earner is an interesting alternative to the standard you-know-whos of the animal welfare world. I mean, how can you resist this tagline? “We may be the only lawyers on Earth whose clients are all innocent.”

Days End Farm Horse Rescue

This rescue earned a four-star rating on Charity Navigator, and entered the exalted territory of Charity Navigator’s “10 Highly Rated Charities with Low-Paid CEOs.”

For financial accountability and transparency — not to mention their amazing work caring for and placing cast-off equines — Days End is a great place to put your horse-dedicated dollars. For $100, why not sponsor a needy horse for the holidays?

Heifer International

With a steady track record and solid ratings, Heifer is a safe bet. But what I really love is what they do. This organization makes it their business to help people in developing nations prosper by showing them how to build micro-businesses in animal agriculture. Last year I donated a goat in my mother’s name.

Give Locally

Assuming that your local shelter or rescue group is a well-oiled machine worthy of your dollars — or you have faith that it’s working hard to help get it that way — giving to an organization in your area can be a responsible way to spend your animal-dedicated money.

Your Veterinarian’s Fund

A donation to your veterinarian’s “stray” or “needy” fund (many animal hospitals have one) can be a nice way to give to your veterinary hospital, your community and to animals in need all at once. 

Check out more opinion pieces on Vetstreet.