Give, but Give Wisely

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:

Seven Easy Ways to Help Japan Now by Liva Judic (@MerryBubbles on Twitter)

Social Media 4 Social Good: A Tsunami of Care by Ty Sullivan

Social Media in Times of Crisis—Japan Earthquake Tsunami by Linda Sherman

Google Crisis Response: Resources Related to the 2011 Japan Crisis, a project

Special Coverage: Japan Quake & Tsunami by AlertNet

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.

8 thoughts on “Give, but Give Wisely

  1. Linda Sherman March 17, 2011 / 4:03 pm

    Thank you Karen. I did indeed cross a wire when I thought it was you who had mentioned Silent Friday. I caught a tweet about this on my #blogchat stream because part of the tweet was using #blogchat and #sxsw tweets as an example of frivolous activity on the Sunday following the quake. I just googled and found this link to the Silent Friday sentiment that tweeter mentioned

    Between building websites, doing social media consulting and continuing to contribute to resource sharing support for Japan – I’m on major overload at the moment. Perhaps because I can read Japanese, it becomes a different situation for me than many other Americans.


    • Karen E. Lund March 17, 2011 / 5:03 pm

      No problem. I often forget where I read something, especially online.

      I should probably write a post on information overload, but it would take six months to research and be the longest blog post in history.


  2. Linda Sherman March 17, 2011 / 2:26 pm

    Thank you for including my resource article Social Media in Times of Crisis, published on Boomer Tech Talk. I am continuing to do research and reach out to people who need information. This is my way contributing to a situation that is near to my heart after working as an executive in Japan for over 20 years.

    I published this post in response to the article by AlertNet and other bloggers that have suggested that Japan is too rich to contribute to

    In regards to your suggestion Monday to have a social media silent Friday (tomorrow) – I agree that frivolous noise such as FollowFriday on the Friday following the quake was like WTF – however, I do believe that social media plays a huge role in bringing people together and supporting them in times of need like this – the point of my article that you so kindly included in your list.


    • Karen E. Lund March 17, 2011 / 2:59 pm

      Linda, thanks for your comment. I was very happy that Ty directed me to your post in time to include it here.

      The AlertNet article made some good points, though I believe the scope of the three disasters (earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plants) justifies donations to help them get back on their feet. But there is great need in other parts of the world that has not received as much media attention and could use the help.

      As for the suggestion of a social media silent Friday, I had not heard of it until now. It certainly was not my suggestion and I am completely opposed to the idea. Indeed, I’m planning to make my #FollowFriday recommendations relief agencies and news sources related to the situation in Japan.


  3. Renee March 17, 2011 / 8:22 am

    Hi Karen :) Nice post, and very appropriate in the aftermath of all of the non-profit “scandals” we’ve had over the past 8 years concerning perceived or actual misappropriation of funds.

    I’m almost always a fan of donating to the Red Cross in instances like this. I know there have been some questions about how their money is used, but the bottom line for me is that they’re there, they’re among the first on the scene and they’re doing some real good.


    • Karen E. Lund March 17, 2011 / 2:45 pm

      As a Red Cross volunteer (and paid staff for three years) I’m not exactly unbiased. Yet part of the reason I’ve stayed with the organization is that I believe they do excellent work and are, for the most part, responsible in their financial management. That said, it can be very difficult to report on every dollar in real time in the midst of a major disaster, and when the media reports that ARC has millions to disburse there are a few who will try to take advantage of the situation.

      I’ve been fortunate to meet one of ARC National’s investigative team, and he is one tough dude. The investigative team has recovered millions from people who attempted to scam the Red Cross and even helped send a few people to jail. We take fraud seriously!

      And while it may be difficult to report on funds in the heat of a crisis, the Red Cross has become much more transparent about reporting their finances after a relief operation is completed. The International Federation (IFRC) also publishes their financials on their website. (One of the Red Cross’s advantages is that they have national societies in 187 countries, so they can be among the first on the scene almost anywhere in the world.)

      For those who prefer to give to other organizations, I know of some excellent ones. The same advice applies: do your homework and find a non-profit whose work matches your goals and that you feel confident will use resources wisely.


  4. Liva Judic March 17, 2011 / 7:54 am

    Hi Karen! Thank you for this wise guide to the givers and thanks for quoting my post! It’s true there have been so many calls for help, it’s hard to see through all of them. The contrarian site is definitely challenging our intuitive reactions. Disruptive thinking can bring great results too. Let’s hope for the best for the Japanese nation.


    • Karen E. Lund March 17, 2011 / 2:26 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Liva. I was happy to link to your post and some other good ones on this topic.

      There is some truth to the contrarian article; Japan is one of the wealthiest nations and has excellent emergency management capacity. My guidelines apply just as much for those wishing to donate to agencies working in poor nations.

      Bottom line is that people should do a little homework before donating (time or money) to be certain their donation accomplishes what they want.


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