Many bloggers have been posting information on donating to the relief efforts in Japan following the earthquakes and tsunami on March 11. It’s good information and I’ll share a few links, but first I want to warn you: not all charitable organizations are equal, and not all are equally good at everything. In the aftermath of a major disaster, well-meaning people may try to organize a relief effort that is simply beyond their ability. Worse, there are scammers who will take advantage of your good intentions. I’m all for doing whatever we can to help people affected by a disaster, but donate your money or your volunteer efforts wisely.
Deciding Where to Give
Here are a few general guidelines for giving
- Give to established non-profit organizations whenever possible. I’ve nothing against start-ups, but learning as you go is difficult in a disaster as daunting as the one in Japan. Give your money or your volunteer time to a charitable organization with a track record that shows they know what they’re doing. (I’ll tell you more about how to find one in a bit.)
- If possible, donate to an organization you’re already familiar with and respect.
- If you don’t know any good non-profits, look for one that already has a presence in the region where the disaster happened. An organization that has a local office or staff working in the area since before the disaster will be best able to start work immediately (indeed, they’re probably already providing disaster relief in Japan as I write this). It will also be fiscally efficient if there are already staff in the area, as it will save transportation costs.
- Unless the organization specifically requests otherwise, give money. It’s usually the fastest and most efficient way for a relief agency to get goods and services to those who need them, especially when the disaster is half a world away. (If you have slightly used clothes, furniture, etc. you were hoping to donate, consider having a yard sale, organizing a flea market, or selling through a second hand shop or Ebay, then donating the proceeds. Or donate to a local charity that can use your things immediately in your neighborhood.)
- Research before you give, even if you are familiar with the organization. Check their website to find out what they are doing or are about to start doing, so that you know your money is providing the kind of service you want to support.
Do Your Homework
OK, so you’re ready to give but you want to make sure it will be used wisely. Good for you! Here are a few sites that will help you research non-profit organizations before your donate. All the sites are free to use, though some will give you more complete information if you register (for free).
- Charity Navigator: Known for its “star” rating system, Charity Navigator only rates established non-profits with at least $1 million in revenue and at least a four-year history of submitting Form 990s. The stars are a good guide to fiscal efficiency, not overall good work, so don’t automatically dismiss an organization with a less than perfect rating. But if you’ve narrowed your choices to two or three and need a tie-breaker, this might be it. And avoid charities with very low ratings unless you know from experience that they do good work.
- GuideStar: A compendium of Form 990s for those of you who are willing to wade through some documentation before you make a donation. (Seriously, some people dig that kind of thing.) The Form 990s is the non-profit version of an income tax return—organizations are required to file it in order to keep their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.
- Foundation Center: While their focus is, naturally, foundations, the Foundation Center also has information on non-profit organizations. A quick search of the Philanthropy News Digest will pull up articles about organizations you may consider donating to, so you can get an idea of their recent work.
All of the above have links to the websites of the non-profits they list, and nearly all non-profits have websites. Be sure to look at an organization’s own website to see what they’re doing for Japan. If you don’t already know them, you can also get a feel for the organizational culture—visiting a website is a bit like walking into their lobby to feel that vibe.
Ideas for Giving
Some bloggers and websites have offered their own lists of where to give. If you’re looking for ideas, check these:
AlertNet also offers a good contrarian opinion: Should We Be Donating to “Rich” Japan? Yet another reason to think before you give, although I think that the scale of this disaster justifies our help. Whether you decide to donate to earthquake and tsunami relief in Japan or are persuaded to send your charitable dollars to a less wealthy nation, the advice above still applies.