Better Business Bureau column
Better Business Bureau

During humanitarian crises like those that have emerged from the recent earthquake in Haiti and political instability in Afghanistan, many people are sympathetic to the victims and want to help them.

Pleas for help come from major charities like the American Red Cross, crowd-sourcing sites set up to benefit individuals, and countless organizations in between. It can be hard to know whether you’re giving to a charity that will help flood victims or an organization that might waste or even steal your donation.

Charities that ask for your money should be transparent about how donations are used. Before you donate, ask the charity what programs and services your money will support, and how much of each dollar is spent on fundraising and other overhead.

Many charities include copies of their annual reports on their websites, and some include an IRS Form 990, which is the charity’s tax return. By looking at those reports, you can get a good idea of where the money goes.

Better Business Bureau has been evaluating charities for most of its 100-year history. Local charities are evaluated by BBB Standards for Charity Accountability, developed by the national Wise Giving Alliance. Reports on more than 14,000 charities are available at bbb.org, including more than 1,000 reviews of charities in eastern and southwest Missouri and southern Illinois.

Here are a few tips on making donations:

  • Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations assist victims. All charities have fundraising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee.
  • Be cautious when giving online to unfamiliar charities. Be wary of spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. After recent natural disasters, many websites and organizations that were created overnight allegedly to help victims turned out to be scams.
  • Find out if the charity has a presence in the impacted areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers into the area to provide assistance. See if the charity’s website clearly describes what they can do to address victims’ needs.
  • Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. You may want to avoid the middleman and give directly to charities that are working in the region. Check out the ultimate recipients of the donations to ensure that the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.
  • Gifts of clothing, food or other in-kind donations may not be appropriate. Unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to distribute such aid, the donations may be more of a burden than a help. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in refugee relief.
  • Be cautious about crowdfunding. These sites do very little to check out the individuals seeking funds after a disaster, and donors may not be able to verify whether the organization or individual seeking funds is trustworthy.
  • Check out a charity at bbb.org or by calling 417-862-4222.

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