My heart goes out to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. I lived in Houston for 10 years, and I recognize a lot of the locations that flooded. Many people lost everything they own.
And as I write this post, Hurricane Irma is wreaking havoc.
Fortunately whenever disaster strikes, others jump in to help. We open our checkbooks and donate to the organizations on the ground providing relief. Some of us even volunteer our labor. There are many wonderful organizations that offer life-saving assistance to people and animals affected by a disaster, and they could not do their good work without the generosity of donors and volunteers.
But just as the looters crawl out of their holes to take advantage of fellow human beings and businesses when they're down, fake charities and "disaster funds" pop up to part sympathetic donors from their money, with no intention of giving it to the intended recipients. Disasters seem to bring out the best, and unfortunately, the worst in people.
You want to help. But how do you ensure your hard-earned dollars and goods really go to the people who need them?
First of all, choose organizations you are familiar with, or research the charity on sites such as Guidestar, Charity Navigator, or the Better Business Bureau. Google the name of the organization for reported scams and complaints. Verify on the IRS website that your donation is tax deductible.
Many fake charities will come up with names that sound like real, respected charitable organizations. Be suspicious if the person asking for money uses high pressure tactics, dodges your questions, or refuses a site visit. Legitimate charities are happy to provide you with all the information you request.
When you do your research, pay attention to what percentage of contributions collected goes to fundraising, salaries, and administrative costs. If you're solicited by a paid fundraiser, ask how much of your donation that person, or the agency employing the fundraiser, will receive. I resent making a "donation" that pads the salary of someone who earns more than I do.
Avoid making a donation in cash, and never send a wire transfer. For tax and record-keeping purposes, it's best to write a check made out to the charitable organization (not to an individual!) or pay by credit card through the charity's secure website.
People who have lost everything need clothing, linens, diapers, toiletries, bottled water, food, pet supplies, etc., so you may choose to donate goods instead of money. Just make sure your donation is really wanted by checking the organization's website for its wish list. If you're far away from the disaster site, unless there's a clear infrastructure for transporting and distributing donations-in-kind to the victims, it might be more effective for you to make a monetary donation. Then the charity can purchase the needed items locally from a vendor who can use the business. I'm still haunted by photos showing trash piles of goods donated to disaster victims in Haiti, going to waste while the Haitians continued to suffer.
You may be tempted to rush to the devastated location and volunteer your services. Again, check with the relief organization coordinating the response to see what skills are needed and wait to be deployed. Having too many inexperienced volunteers descend on a disaster site can strain resources and divert first responders from tending to the original victims.
During a high-profile event like 9/11 or a major hurricane, even the legitimate charities may receive more donations than they need to handle that particular disaster. When this happens, the excess contributions may be funneled to other programs or placed in reserve to help with future disasters. So be aware that your donation may not be used exactly how you thought it would be. But if you've sent it to a legitimate, efficient charity, you can rest assured it will go to aid someone in need.
What charities do you believe do the best job with disaster response? I'd love to hear your comments.