Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas, North Carolina, and up the Atlantic coast provides a terrible reminder of how these storms can upend lives and destroy homes. As with previous disasters, millions of Americans are trying to figure out the best way to use their money to help people recover.
As a scholar who has studied philanthropy after disasters, I’m hearing from friends and colleagues that the growing number of charities responding to these emergencies is making them unsure about which one to support. If you are feeling the same way, here’s my advice.
Decide what matters most to you
Giving is a personal decision motivated by personal values and passions. So, before you search for the right charity, clarify a few things in your own mind.
Do you prefer to support local, national, or global organizations? Would you rather give directly to individuals in need?
National and international organizations have specialized expertise. Local groups know the territory.
The Red Cross, the biggest disaster relief nonprofit, operates everywhere. It has the ability to be on the ground, making a difference right away. But debates crop up from time to time over its effectiveness due to concerns over how it dealt with some previous disasters.
National organizations, such as Team Rubicon and the Salvation Army, as well as the Grand Bahama Disaster Relief Foundation, a local organization, and GoFundMe, a platform for giving directly to people in need, are all responding to the emergencies created by Hurricane Dorian.
Also consider timing.
Do you care more about helping people immediately or over the long term? Hurricane survivors need food, shelter, and other basics right away. But as the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the 2012 hurricane widely known as Superstorm Sandy made clear, relief efforts may take many years.
Once you set these priorities, seek groups that do the kind of work you care about most.
Consider several options
But they aren’t your only options. After an earthquake, hurricane or other tragedy, many established charities adapt their services to respond to the needs that emerge, as I learned in research I conducted about how nonprofits responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Many media outlets and specialty websites compile lists with good options. Following Hurricane Dorian, examples include the Washington Post, USA Today, PBS NewsHour, and Charity Navigator.
After you find the groups aligned with your interests, visit their websites. Read their mission statements and look for descriptions of how they’re helping.
Focus on results
Knowing what matters to you and what your giving options are make a good start but not enough. You also need to make sure a charity is likely to make a difference with your money.
Most people donate in the first two months following a disaster. That means that when you research your giving options, the best information you’re likely to find is what an organization plans to do or is doing right now.
That’s useful, but it doesn’t tell you whether they’ll do a good job.
Given that challenge, what kind of information can help you make a good decision? Results from past work, whether in disaster response or something else, can at least tell you something about reliability. Any nonprofit asking for your money after a hurricane or earthquake—or any time, for that matter—should make it easy to find information about results on its website.
Look for answers to these questions. After the last disaster:
- Did they spend all the money they received?
- How did they spend it?
- Did the money make a meaningful difference in addressing people’s needs?
The United Way, which often plays a major role in disaster relief, distributes the money it raises to community groups that help those affected. After major disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, it releases updates about how it spent donors’ dollars. The Robin Hood Foundation set another good example when it reported on its work following Superstorm Sandy.
Details about results can be hard to find on charity websites. But many organizations providing disaster relief do provide them.
For instance, the Red Cross website includes a long list of publications regarding its responses to disasters, and the Salvation Army has posted videos, with more limited information, that describe its efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake.
GuideStar is a good information source because it enables charities to upload results-related information on its site. For example, the Humane Society of the United States provides results information on its GuideStar page and also describes accomplishments on its website.
Watch for red flags
Finally, consult charity rating sites.
These sites score nonprofits by applying their own criteria, making comparison easy. What they rate varies but usually includes financial performance, management practices, and transparency. Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau/Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Watch are among the best-known.
Before giving to a nonprofit, ensure that it has a high score with one or more of those groups and see if there are reasons for concern. One good resource is Charity Navigator’s frequently updated donor advisory list. It catalogs everything from reports of embezzled funds and fraud to unclear financial reports.
Donate what you can spare after disasters. But, as the old adage suggests, good intentions don’t always yield good results. Doing a little research and following these guidelines can help you feel more confident about your donations and the difference they will make.
David Campbell is an associate professor of public administration at Binghamton University, State University of New York.