Americans donated $358.3 billion to charities last year, exceeding the inflation-adjusted total of $355.1 billion in 2007, the year before the Great Recession struck the economy.

Adjusted for inflation, that $358.3 billion was an increase of 5.4 percent above the $339.9 billion Americans donated in 2013, according to Giving USA: The Annual Report on Philanthropy. The report is researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. 

“It was the fifth year in a row where giving had gone up, which is pretty significant,” says Jim Yunker, past chairman of The Giving USA Foundation, publisher of Giving USA, the annual report on charitable giving.

Yunker—who is also president and CEO of The Yunker Group, an Anderson Township-based executive search and fundraising consultancy for nonprofit organizations—says the report reveals some interesting trends.

One of those trends is the growth in online charitable giving, he says. “It’s not that significant yet, but each year it’s been inching up,” says Yunker. “It’s starting to have an impact.”

The Freestore Foodbank, the largest emergency food and services provider in the Tristate area, has certainly seen the impact of online giving. 

Jennifer Ebelhar, vice president of Development & Communications for the Freestore Foodbank, says, “Our online giving grows dramatically every year.”

Ebelhar says that the Internet works well in conjunction with the other methods the Freestore Foodbank uses to raise money, such as direct mail, grant writing and personal solicitations. 

“We may send [donors] a letter and then they’ll go online and make a gift because people are more comfortable giving online,” Ebelhar says. “We work pretty hard to bring in the money, but Cincinnati is incredibly generous and they really support the Freestore Foodbank.”

Making donations online is definitely becoming more common says Eileen R. Heisman, president and CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, a public charity that manages donor advised funds. “One of the biggest trends that has affected every sector is the use of the Internet,” says Heisman.

“It used to be people wrote a check or maybe they put a few pennies in a jar or the Salvation Army,” she says, “but online transactions, just like online banking, has changed dramatically. The web has changed things.”

People can now make donations quickly to help with natural disasters in the U.S. and globally, says Heisman. “The speed that you can respond to a social problem or a disaster is unbelievable,” she says.

“You can see a problem that’s happening and then if you look online within usually less than a day you can see entities like ours,” says Heisman. “We put endorsed charities that are helping with the Syrian refugees problem or helping with Katrina. You can see lists of endorsed charities that are good at fixing the problem.”

But there’s at least one drawback to making online charitable donations, she says. “One of the things you skip in that is you don’t do as much homework,” says Heisman. “Because it’s so easy to just be guided through a bunch of hotlinks that you’re not nearly as inclined to spend some time to say, ‘OK, who do I really want to give to and why?’”

Online charitable giving also opens up a new frontier in fraud. Heisman says, “A lot of the frauds and scams in charitable giving are charities that are created with names that sound like really legitimate names.”

Heisman says it can take less than 10 minutes to figure out if the charity is a legitimate charity or not. Both Heisman and Yunker recommend potential donors check out a charity’s credentials on the websites and 

“The Better Business Bureau has a program that identifies charities that are doing good work,” says Yunker.

Heisman says to also look at a charity’s tax filing and search the Web to see if there’s been any news stories involving fraud or if there are too many family members on a charity’s board.

The charity’s annual reports are also important, says Heisman. “Do they report back to their donors the impact of what they’re doing with the money? Most charities that are doing good work have some sort of a report card or dashboard to tell you what they are doing,” she says.

One of the best ways potential donors can make sure their money is put to good use is to get involved with an organization, says Yunker. “I think the best and the most effective way is to choose organizations that you’re passionate about and get involved with them,” he says. “By being engaged with them you’ll know whether they warrant your support or not.”

The most important way to prevent being scammed is to never donate money over the phone, says Heisman. “Really watch for people that want to take your credit cards for charitable purposes over the phone,” she says.

“When I get called I say if you really want me to give something send me something in the mail,” says Heisman. “Any charity worth their salt will send you something. And if you decide you want to give it to them by that time you can do a little research.”

Ebelhar says if people research the Freestore Foodbank, which provides more than 20 million meals annually across a 20-county region in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, they’ll find that a charitable donation will go a long way. 

“People are always looking for the best use of their dollar and 94 cents of every [dollar] goes right to people in need,” says Ebelhar. “We’re a good use of their charitable dollar.”