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The Best Ways to Donate to Help Disaster Victims

Here’s how to ensure your charity dollars are used effectively to aid people suffering after Oklahoma’s tornados and other natural disasters

By Caroline Mayer

The devastation from the Oklahoma tornado is so great, it’s only natural that you’ll want to help. But before whipping out your checkbook, going online to make a contribution or texting a donation, you’ll want to ensure that your dollars will be used wisely. The same goes for helping victims of other disasters.
Not all charities, including long-established ones, have the ability to help out. And some, sad to say, may be scams, capitalizing on other people’s grief to abscond with your money.
Scammers Flourish After Disasters
“Tragedies inspire people to give, but tragedies – whether natural disasters or manmade catastrophes – also inspire scammers to take advantage of that generosity,” H. Art Taylor, president of the Better Business Bureau’s national charity monitoring arm, the Wise Giving Alliance, said a day after the Boston Marathon bombings.
(MORE: After Oklahoma: How to Prepare for a Disaster)
Less than 24 hours after the tornado in Moore, Okla., Taylor offered another warning: “We urge donors to take the time to make sure their donations are going to legitimate charities that can do the most good for those in need.”
How exactly do you do that?
For one thing, “be skeptical about charities created just for this disaster,” says Ken Stern, author of the new exposé, With Charity for All. “It’s better to give money to organizations with experience in disaster relief.”

Smart-Giving Advice From Charity Experts
Here are six more tips from Stern, the Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, a nonprofit rating service that is continually posting an updated list of its three- and four-star groups responding to the tornado’s aftermath. (The Salvation Army isn’t among them because Charity Navigator says it’s unable to rate the group due to insufficient data about its financial health.)
See what experts say about a charity. Take a few minutes to visit the websites of four major charity raters: BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Guidestar and Charity Watch.
(MORE: Disaster Rx: Try a Little Tenderness)

For more on these sites, read my earlier Next Avenue post “How to Check Out a Charity Before You Give.”
Find a charity with a proven track record. Not all well-meaning organizations have the infrastructure and local knowledge to make the most of your donation. And many may not yet have people on the ground there.
If a national charity will pass along donations to other, local groups, you may want to instead give to another organization that already has a presence in the area.
Designate your charitable contribution so the money will be used for the type of assistance you prefer. For the Oklahoma tornado, you might want to help rebuild Moore’s infrastructure or shelter its homeless, rather than just letting the money go into a charity’s general operating fund.
Don’t send clothes, food or other supplies. "This type of philanthropy is simply not practical or efficient," Charity Navigator says in its online article “Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis." "Even if mail could get to an impacted region, no one is set up to receive these goods, much less organize and distribute them to the victims."
Instead of sending old clothing or cast-off housewares, you might want to hold a garage sale and turn your used goods into cash. Then donate the money to a worthy charity.
Be wary of email solicitations, especially from people claiming to be disaster victims. Unless you know someone in the impacted area, anyone alleging to be a victim “is most likely part of a scam,” Charity Navigator says.
(MORE: 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Giving to Charity)

Steer clear of websites and social media posts popping up to accept donations, even if they appear to be from legitimate charities. They could be bogus. Stern says the FBI estimated that more than 2,400 phony sites sprang up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina with the aim of defrauding well-meaning but inattentive donors.
If you want to give online, go to the charity’s website on your own own. If you don’t know the official site, you can often find links at Charity Navigator and the Wise Giving Alliance.
Stern offers one final, valuable piece of advice: “If you care about the victims of the Oklahoma disaster, think about supporting the next victims as well,” he says. “Many disaster relief charities do some of their most important work in sheltering and supporting victims in the first 48 hours after a disaster. Helping those charities be prepared for the next disaster — which will happen — is just as important as helping the people in Moore.”

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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