December isn’t just the month to buy holiday gifts for friends and family. It’s also prime time to support the causes that matter most to you, in part because it’s your last chance to get a 2012 tax deduction for charitable donations. “Historically, Chicago has been a very generous community,” says Edith Falk, who heads Campbell & Company, a local consulting firm for nonprofits.

If you’re thinking about contributing more this year than in 2011, you’re in good company. According to the trend trackers at the Chicago-based Giving USA Foundation, after the worst decline in five decades, donations by individual Americans and family foundations reached $298 billion in 2011, the second consecutive year of gains. And the forecast for 2012 looks promising. “Nationally, everybody is very optimistic,” says Geoffrey Brown, Giving USA’s executive director.

Sadly, the recent recession-fueled downturn dealt some local charities a deathblow. The Jane Addams Hull House, for example, ceased operation in January after more than a century. But there are still 25,000 or so nonprofits in the area clamoring for your dollars. The big question: Which of them will make the best use of your money?

That’s where this story comes in. Chicago quizzed professors, philanthropic consultants, and the brains behind the website Charity Navigator—a nonprofit that rates the viability of charities on a four-star scale—to come up with key guidelines for sizing up an organization (see “How to Vet a Charity”). “Donors should look at three things: financial health, commitment to accountability and transparency, and results,” says Sandra Miniutti, vice president and CFO of Charity Navigator.

Don’t have time to do the vetting? We did it for you, identifying 15 standout area nonprofits in seven categories that meet widely accepted guidelines for financial health and deliver on their stated missions in measurable ways.

If you can’t afford to add a new charity to your list this year, remember that you can offer another valuable asset: time. The nonprofit Chicago Cares ( organizes groups of volunteers for more than 200 local opportunities every month, from reading with at-risk students to cooking breakfast for seniors. Check their calendar for an event near you.


The Gold Standard

Not only do these 15 local nonprofits pass the screens, but they’re recommended by experts in the charity world for making excellent use of donations.

  Organization Director name and salary % of budgets spent on programs Mission and accomplishments
  Greater Chicago Food Depository
Kate Maehr
93% of $79.7 million This massive network of shelters and food pantries distributed more than 64 million pounds of food last year to area residents in need.
Habitat for Humanity Lake County
Julie Donovan
88% of $1.7 million One of the most productive Habitat affiliates in Illinois, this group is on track to build, rehab, or repair homes for 40 families in 2012.
Inspiration Corporation
Shannon Stewart
87% of $4.3 million This innovative organization helps Chicago’s homeless become self-sufficient through housing and job-training programs.
  Alliance for the Great Lakes
Joel Brammeier
80% of $1.9 million A vocal protector of our lakes, this group recruits thousands of volunteers annually to help clean up polluted shorelines and restore wetlands.
Environmental Law & Policy Center
Howard A. Learner
79% of $5.5 million In 2011, this green policy advocate successfully negotiated an end to the dumping of untreated sewage into the Chicago River.
  American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest
Harold Wimmer
86% of $20.8 million Look for a new public awareness campaign this winter from this regional group, which aims to combat asthma, cancer, and lung disease. campaign.
Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation
Stephanie Lieber
75% of $1.7 million During its most recent grant cycle, this organization donated $1.2 million in seed funding to five breast cancer research projects.
United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Chicago
Paul J. Dulle
95% of $8.7 million An advocate for disabled children and adults, this foundation plans to open a group home in Lombard in 2013.
  Big Shoulders Fund
Joshua Hale
92% of $13.1 million This fund supports programs in 93 inner-city Catholic schools and administers more than $4.5 million annually in scholarships.
Ronald McDonald House Charities
Martin J. Coyne Jr.
90% of $28.9 million Chicago is home to this global network, which arranges for temporary housing and other resources for sick children and their families.
SOS Children’s Villages Illinois
Tim McCormick
86% of $7.4 million Over the summer, this resource for foster children and parents opened the Wellness Garden in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
  PAWS Chicago
Rochelle Michalek
91% of $5.3 million The city’s most vocal advocate for pet adoption and the humane treatment of animals is frequently cited as Chicagoans’ favorite charity.
  Chicago Public Library Foundation
Rhona Frazin
80% of $5.5 million Founded by Cindy Pritzker, this group sponsors literacy programs, including a free summer reading push that, in 2012, reached 60,000 children.
Joffrey Ballet
Christopher C. Conway
90% of $13.5 million The classical dance company—founded in New York in 1956; returned to Chicago in 1995— teaches weekly classes in 35 local schools.
  Rotary Foundation of Rotary International
John Osterlund
87% of $193.9 million One of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, Rotary recently raised $228 million for a polio eradication campaign.

METHODOLOGY: Chicago started with a list of 53 four-star local groups from charity navigator, then narrowed it down to 15 after applying the screens at left and interviewing staff. salaries come from the most recent 990 forms but, in some cases, were updated by the charities themselves; budget percents come from charity navigator. *Coyne is compensated through McDonald’s Corporate.