What's the absolute best way to help after a natural disaster abroad? Should I send cash?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Oct. 7 2009 7:01 AM

Typhoon in Burma! Tsunami in Samoa!

What's the absolute best way to help after a natural disaster abroad? Should I send cash?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I always want to help after I hear about natural disasters abroad, but how can I check to ensure that my donation is going to a good organization? How do I know whether or not the organization is actually getting relief to those who need it?

—Annabelle

Sandy:

In the past two weeks we've seen a tsunami in Samoa, an earthquake in Sumatra, mud slides in Italy, and flooding in Manila—and those are only the events that received major airtime. The number of natural disasters nearly tripled between 1980 and 2007. They strike close to home and far away—and for many of us, our first response is to reach for our wallets and send donations to whoever shows the saddest photos.

Psychologists say that this urge to give is a natural response—and don't get me wrong; it isn't one I want to discourage. But let me push you to think about disaster relief in a different way. A recent article on the Brookings Web site discussed the amazing capacity of international relief systems to respond to major disasters but also the time lost in mobilizing these international resources to the site of the disaster. Much of the life-saving happens before the international agencies even arrive. While soliciting donations to help in the immediate aftermath of a disaster may be easier, funding ways for communities to respond to disasters and take efforts to reduce the risks of future disasters (e.g., hurricane awareness programs, flood warning systems) could save more lives in the long run.

By giving an unrestricted donation (meaning that you don't designate it to go only to those affected by a particular disaster), you could support an organization like the American Red Cross in fulfilling its mission to help people "prevent, prepare for, and respond to emergencies" in addition to aiding those who need immediate services. Oxfam also works to help communities reduce disaster risks through interventions such as planting trees to prevent flooding, training community members to become emergency first responders, and improving water systems where there is risk of drought.

If you'd still like to give to a specific disaster, keep in mind that while the organizations mobilizing for any given catastrophe may be different, the basic principles stay the same.

First, while donating tangible items might make you feel better, giving cash is almost always a better option. First responders call the deluge of unsolicited goods they receive the "second disaster," as shipping, sorting, storing, and distributing the goods takes valuable staff time away from other necessary tasks. Cash donations are particularly useful because they allow organizations to buy what is really needed, and, especially with disasters abroad, there aren't shipping delays and costs associated with the gift.

Second, give to organizations that are already working in the afflicted area. And, if possible, find organizations that already have disaster relief experience. InterAction has a list of member organizations doing relief work in each affected region. CNN and Charity Navigator partner on a site called Impact Your World, where you can find a list of "vetted" organizations working on the ground for any given disaster.

Finally, be alert for those seeking to take advantage of a crisis for their own gain. Watch out for suspicious e-mails and for people doing door-to-door solicitations. Even if the organization's name sounds impressive, make sure to check that it is an established organization with a substantial track record. There are times to take a risk and fund an up-and-coming organization, but the wake of a disaster probably isn't one of them.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com and Sandy will try to answer it.

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