Instead of spending hours at the mall picking out some gift your mother-in-law really doesn't need, how about making a donation to charity? It's quick, will help someone else in need and doesn't require wrapping.
But don't go giving away your money without some thought. Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization, has an impressive site with information on a ton of national charities and guidelines for how to evaluate whether charities are spending your money wisely. Among the recommendations:
* Charities should spend no more than 30 percent (preferably less than 25 percent) of their income on fundraising and administrative costs.
* Make sure a charity has short- and long-term goals, and evaluates the progress its making. For instance, Providence House's goal is to help families live independently and they can tell you the number of families who are still living on their own years after graduation.
* Feel free to ask questions of the organization's director or board. Look through the annual report and IRS forms. Form 990 is the one nonprofit organizations fill out - and they are required to show it to anyone who asks.
* Once you trust the organization, give to their general fund. Organizations need money to keep the lights on and pay for unexpected maintenance issues -- designated funds don't give them the flexibility to do that.
If you're looking for information on local charities, try Guidestar, which posts 990 forms. Also, if a charity receives more than a certian amount of money from state grants (I don't remember how much off the top of my head), they they have to send their audit to the legislative auditor, who kindly posts them on his website.
Of course, I am a little biased this time of year. If you don't want to do the work of looking at the charities, let The Times do it for you and give to the Joy Fund. We'll collect money (and put the names of donors and their honorees in the paper), and distribute all of it to various organizations to fund their Christmas projects. I'll write stories about as many of the charities as I can and keep you posted on what they're doing with the money. After the first of the year, we'll publish a full accounting of where it all went.