In the wake of today's deadly earthquake in Japan and tsunami in the Pacific, many people are considering making donations to help those who were affected by the disaster.
The following is a series of do's and don'ts to help you make the best donation decisions after a disaster.
Do determine if the country is accepting international assistance
With all the photos and videos of destruction on the evening news, it may seem impossible that governments would not want outside assistance. However, just because there has been a disaster does not mean that the local government and local aid organizations are not capable of reaching and helping those in need. Before sending your donation find out what, if any, assistance the government is allowing. Check to see if the aid organization you're considering donating to is offering that same type of assistance.
Do look at a variety of nonprofits before giving
There are hundreds of organizations that respond to most disasters. Take the time to evaluate a few before giving. Also, just because they have name recognition does not mean they're best able to respond to the disaster. Look for organizations that were operating in the country before the disaster, they will be able to respond quicker and know the local culture, politics, and needs better. Giving to local organizations is great. Unfortunately, local charities that operate in foreign countries can be difficult to find and may not have a Web site. If they do have Web sites, they are often not in English.
Places to find lists of organizations involved in the recovery efforts include:
Do look for organizations with prior experience and expertise
There is a great deal of money given by donors after well-publicized disasters. The ease of raising money makes it tempting to respond even if an organization does not have prior experience in that area. After the 2004 tsunami, many organizations with no prior experience built boats or houses. I attended one ceremony where the boats actually sank during the ceremony because they weren't properly sealed. There is a steep learning curve when nonprofits move out of their normal area of work. This may lead to mistakes and wasted money. Make sure the organization has prior experience in their proposed projects.
Don't donate to a project just because it's "sexy"
Recovery projects that are inherently attractive to donors - such as orphanages or boats - are easier to fund but may not be what is most needed. After the 2004 tsunami orphanages were built in excess of what was really needed, I had an orphanage approach me looking for orphans to house. So much money was given to orphanages in Indonesia that some families resorted to abandoning their children at the orphanages because they could not feed and clothe them. It would have been far better if the donations had supported families so they could care for their children themselves.
Don't earmark funds
An organization on the ground has a far better idea of what is needed the most than someone who lives half the world away. Earmarking funds may force an organization to spend money where it's not needed and keep it from funding the projects that are needed the most. After the tsunami in Thailand, one organization had money earmarked for two truckloads of rice. By the time the group arrived in the area four months after the tsunami, shipments of rice were no longer needed. Because the money had been earmarked, the organization had to contact donors to get permission to use the money in different ways. If you trust the organization, allow it to make professional decisions on how to best use your donation, if you don't trust them then find another organization to donate to.
Don't evaluate an organization based on the amount spent on its administrative costs
The amount an organization spends on administration offers no indication of its quality. The pressure to keep administrative costs low may lead to organizations under staffing their projects or hiring unqualified staff that may not have the skills to do their job. They may give their staff the tools and resources needed to do their job well. Or they may focus on inherently cheaper programs even if they are not what is most needed. Additionally, project costs and administration costs are easy to manipulate.
Do ensure that the agency is legitimate before giving
Several fake charities were created after the 2004 tsunami. In Thailand a man took photos of houses under construction and then posted the pictures on his own Web site saying that it was his organization's work. Donors should verify that the nonprofit is real before giving. Google the exact name of the organization—be careful that its hasn't used a name that is almost identical to a well-known charity. If the organization has been in operation for a while, there should be a history of information about it on the Web, including links to newspaper articles written about the group, or meeting minutes.
Donate only through the organization's Web site to ensure you aren't giving money to someone sending out a sham e-mail or creating a fake Facebook page.
Don't expect the funds to be spent immediately
After most disasters, the initial relief phase includes search and rescue, as well as providing immediate medical care, food, water, and shelter. After that, a much longer recovery and reconstruction phase begins. Organizations that feel pressure from donors to complete their work quickly may try to speed their work by cutting corners, leaving aid recipients out of the decision making process, avoiding coordinating with other organizations, or ending projects before they're able to survive on their own. In Thailand, there were numerous instances of houses being built before the land title was cleared requiring litigation, some families faced loosing their houses a few years later. Allow the organizations adequate time to ensure they are providing help in the best way possible.
Do consider holding off some of your donations until later in the rebuilding process
Immediately after a disaster is prime fund raising time for nonprofits. As a result, appeals are issued before there’s any clear idea of what is needed or how much they can actually help. If an organization receives more money than it can use for the type of help it provides it has one of four options. It can divert the excess funds to other programs in other countries, it can provide assistance in excess of what is actually needed, it can move out of its area of expertise and do projects it's not skilled at, or it can subcontract other agencies to work in other areas. Rebuilding after a disaster takes years, waiting a few weeks or months before donating everything you plan to give will allow you to make additional funding decisions once the situation on the ground is clearer.
Don't take up a collection of goods to send over
After the tsunami, tons of used clothing were donated, much of it inappropriate to the climate and culture. There were winter hats, coats and gloves donated to southern Thailand and mountains of donated clothing dumped beside the road in India. Donated goods can clog ports and prevent more critical relief items from getting through. Ports can only hold and process so many goods and often the port authorities have difficulty sorting through everything arriving to get it processed. Please do not take up collections of medicine, clothing, baby formula, or food for shipment, or show up on your own to hand out money or goods. Although well intentioned, this can actually make the situation worse as it adds to the confusion, diverts resources, and may lead to aid dependency.
Don't go over individually to volunteer
Many people want to volunteer, however unless you have a specific skill and speak the language, there is often very little you can contribute that local people could not do. Local people need the work as many of them lose their livelihoods in the disaster. Even if you have a specialized trade, your credentials may not be recognized in that country. In addition, you will likely not find an international charity able to take you on because of liability issues and the fact that you don't have prior disaster experience and training. Small local organizations may be willing to use volunteers, but their needs are for Web site developers or grant writers. Your chances of working in the villages are small unless you speak the language and understand the culture.
Do consider donating an equal amount of money to disaster preparedness programs
Programs that help communities prepare for and respond to disasters save more lives and are more cost effective than large rescue operations after a disaster. This becomes even more important with the increasing rate of natural disasters. After each disaster, the first people to respond are neighbors, friends, family, and local disaster-response teams. Consider donating to organizations in other countries — or even your own home town — that help communities prepare for and respond to future disasters.
Don't support any adoptions or evacuations of orphans
After each disaster, there are attempts to adopt or evacuate orphans. However, many of these "orphans" have parents or other living relatives desperate to care for them. Priority should be placed on efforts to reunite children with their relatives. Evacuating the orphans from the country or putting them up for adoption may forever separate them from their family.
Don't assume there is a body overseeing and regulating the aid
Most people assume that some entity, probably the United Nations, oversees international aid to ensure that it’s well done and getting where it is most needed. In reality the UN has no direct control over nonprofits, which makes it difficult to coordinate the relief efforts and ensure all the aid provided is appropriate an well done. Two attempts to create a regulatory body have failed. Without this, it is up to the government hit by the disaster to monitor and control the flood of assistance into their country. This can be impossible for many local governments. The best way to stop ineffectual or bad aid is to only donate to organizations that you are certain are competent and skilled at their work.
Do take the time to make informed decisions
Take the time to understand the situation and make educated decisions. There are many resources here to help you do that. Your decision as to which nonprofits receive your donations matters.
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