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A shopper drops coins into a Salvation Army kettle in Chicago, Illinois. Charitable giving often reaches its high note in December each year. - 

Steve Chiotakis: December is a big month for charitable giving. About half of all private donations are made this month, many in this last week.

Andrea Gardner tells us where we're sending our donated dollars.

Andrea Gardner: As the ecomony wobbles along, Americans want their dollars to stretch even further -- not just when they buy, but also when they donate.

Ken Berger runs Charitynavigator.org, a site that rates charities based on performance.

Ken Berger: There is a sense that every dollar is more precious than ever, and that it's essential that it get to the high performing non profits.

Berger says this year, more donors favor charities that help the most needy people. Many are choosing health and human service charities -- like homeless shelters and food pantries.

Marvin Gross is CEO of Union Station Homeless Services in Southern California. He says new donors often reference the economy and high unemployment rates as their reason for giving.

Marvin Gross: People will come to us, they say: we know it is a tough time, we know a lot of people are suffering, we know you help those who are in need.

In a recent survey, half of all health and human charities said donations were up in 2011. Other types of non profits -- like education and arts charities -- reported lower rates of growth.

In Los Angeles, I'm Andrea Gardner for Marketplace.