As a Floridian I know bad weather. Personally I have been through four hurricanes and countless tropical storms in the decade that I have lived in South Florida. I have been without power, clean drinking water, hot food, heat and air conditioning during the days following each of the four hurricanes.
I, along with the rest of the nation, have been glued to my TV watching the devastation brought on by Hurricane Sandy. I watched as reporters waded through rising sea waters and homes began to flood. I saw the pictures of businesses destroyed and landmarks damaged beyond repair.
For those who have never lived through a hurricane and its aftermath it might be hard to imagine just how bad it is for those who were affected by Hurricane Sandy. Fortunately that doesn’t stop us from reaching into our wallets and donating to those in need. In times of natural disasters Americans are always willing to help to the best of their abilities. When a tsunami devastated Southeast Asia the day after Christmas in 2004, Americans donated $1.54 billion. And after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast Americans gave $6.5 billion, breaking all previous records of disaster related giving.
Unfortunately donations aren’t the only things that pop up after a natural disaster. So do scammers and fraudulent investment schemes. After any kind of disaster there is a steep rise in the number of unscrupulous scam artists and people looking to capitalize off of the generosity of others. I want to donate to those in need, but I want to make sure I give my money to an actual charity and one that has a good track record.
My first thought, like everyone else’s, was to donate to The Red Cross. They are a highly recognizable charity organization that has been around for decades. But The Red Cross has come under fire recently in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Some have even called for Americans to stop donating to the organization. This isn’t the first time The Red Cross has gotten criticism over its response to a natural disaster. After Hurricane Katrina many donators found out their money went into a general fund rather than to hurricane victims affected along the Gulf Coast. And many have questioned why The Red Cross pays so called “volunteers” for their help.
In light of these critiques I became a bit wary of giving a donation to them. So I did a little digging to find out which charities are best. In the process I discovered a slew of information about charitable organizations that helped me decide which charity to donate to. I thought I’d pass the information on to help you choose between charities if you plan to donate to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts or any other cause.
A popular scam calls for criminals to ask for donations to charities that have names very similar and sound just like other well-known disaster relief organizations. Be careful when giving money over the phone and online that you are donating to the rightful charity. When in doubt call the charity directly to ask if the phone call or email asking for a donation came from them.
If you get a phone call asking for a donation, watch out for high-pressure tactics. This is a tell-tale sign you are dealing with a scam artist. Legitimate charities will never try to coerce someone into donating. A good charity will also be sure to answer any and all questions you may have about relief efforts and the organization. A scam artist won’t be able to answer questions like these easily. Ask questions and if something doesn’t feel right, don’t donate.
Avoid charities that were created specifically to help with a particular natural disaster; this is another hallmark of a scam. Furthermore, make sure the charity you are donating to isn’t relatively new. Even if they are legitimate they may have a hard time coordinating relief efforts in areas outside their comfort zones and lack the proper infrastructure to deal with it.
Once you are sure you are connected to a legitimate charity you should find out how they spend the donations they receive. The best run charities keep their operating and administrative costs to just a quarter of their overall budget, spending at least 75% on the programs and services they exist to provide. Avoid charities that are vague or do not supply this information. Good charities embrace these types of questions and requests; they do not run away from them. Charities that spend more than 33% of their budget on salaries and operational costs should be viewed as inefficient and poorly run.
In those cases you can’t even be sure your money is going to relief efforts instead of paying the CEO’s salary. To avoid this, designate how you would like your funds to be spent. This will ensure your donation is being used as you see fit. When you make out a check to a charity, write the relief efforts name in the memo section of the check. If you are donating online, check the appropriate box to designate where your money is being spent.
You are probably saying to yourself at this point how in the heck do I find out all this information? While researching The Red Cross I came across CharityNavigator.com. The site independently evaluates and rates charities based on financial health, transparency and accountability. They have ratings on over 5,500 charities across the globe. I used them to decide which charity to donate money to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
I like this site because you can browse charities by categories to help narrow your search. Charity Navigator can also help you research a specific charity you are interested in donating to. It will also provide you with evaluations of charities in the same category you are looking in so you can compare. Or you can browse their many lists of reputable charities. The only downside I can tell about this website is that you can’t use it to find out about smaller, local charities.
You might be surprised at what you learn about your favorite charities. I found out that The Red Cross received only three out of four stars in their rating, which concerned me a bit. I was happy to read that they spend over 92% of their total budget on programs and services, which is a very high number. They also scored well on the accountability scale. So despite the recent backlash against The Red Cross I decided they were the right charity for me. The only extra thing I did was to mark my donation to them as being for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts; I did not want my money going to their general fund.
I encourage you to check out charitynavigator.com to see how your favorite charitable organizations stack up. You might be surprised by what you learn.
Keeping Money in Your Pocket,