When a hurricane or other emergency strikes, many people are eager to help by donating to charities or perhaps directly to victims. There’s no shortage of opportunities when coverage of earthquakes, floods, mass shootings, and other calamities in traditional and social-media channels is accompanied by appeals for money.
But not every request is legit. For example, a woman in the Bronx, N.Y., was arrested by federal authorities for allegedly engaging in a fundraising scheme following the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December. Authorities said she used her Facebook account, telephone calls, and text messages to claim that she was a relative of a shooting victim, raising money to pay for funeral expenses.
It can be especially difficult checking out fundraising appeals that often appear overnight. With crowd-funding websites such as GoFundMe.com, people can set up fundraisers for all kinds of causes and spread the word through social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter. But there’s no guarantee that the money raised will go to the advertised cause.
And even if an appeal is legitimate, you can’t be sure that your donation will be used effectively or that a large part of it won’t be taken in fees. Here’s how to ensure that your gift will do the most good.
- Beware of unsolicited appeals. Fund- raising e-mail, phone calls, texts, and letters might be fraudulent. Even if they’re from groups you trust, it’s best to contact the charities directly. Scammers sometimes use fake e-mail messages to lure people to phony websites that seem authentic.
- Be cautious giving to individuals. It might be tempting to give to a fund set up to provide shelter for a family whose house was destroyed. But it’s difficult determining whether those victims are the most needy or whether the money will actually be used for the stated purpose. Also remember that aid to individuals isn’t tax deductible. If you’re intent on responding to such an appeal, make sure the fund is being administered by a third party, such as a bank, lawyer, or certified public accountant, advises Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance.
- Give to established charities. Before you give, make sure that the group does what you expect, Weiner says. The Red Cross might be a wise pick if you want your donation to be used for immediate relief. But if you want to support long-term home reconstruction, a group like Habitat for Humanity might be a better choice. Some charities may not be in a position to help at all, depending on the type of emergency and where it occurred. Before giving, go to a group’s website, which might provide details on how it is helping in the current emergency.
- Check the watchdogs. National charities are evaluated by three major groups: the BBB Wise Giving Alliance; CharityWatch; and Charity Navigator. They use different criteria in their assessments, so check them all.
- Investigate local groups. You won’t find watchdog reports about many small community groups, although local Better Business Bureaus evaluate some. In that case, one option is to give through a fund-raising federation, such as the United Way. If you want to do your own research, ask a group to send you its annual report and federal tax form 990. The tax forms are also available from Guidestar.org with free registration.