First, there was Hurricane Harvey. Then came Irma, Jose and Maria. In between, there were floods, earthquakes and wildfires, too.
In the span of about one month, a large area of the world was hammered by natural disasters, leaving behind death and devastation. The rubble is being cleared, millions are without power, and drinkable water can be hard to find.
With such widespread need, it can be hard to know how to help. Who needs it? What do they need? Which groups can you trust?
The New York Times published a series of guides with tips on finding local charities and avoiding fraud as readers sought ways to help people in Texas and elsewhere after Hurricane Harvey, then Floridians and others in the path of Hurricane Irma, the victims of the earthquakes in Mexico and, most recently, residents of Puerto Rico and other islands hit by Hurricane Maria. Such lists are, by necessity, incomplete.
“It can be a lot for a donor,” said Katie Rusnock, who leads a team that tracks wrongdoing at Charity Navigator, which grades nonprofits on their financial health and transparency.
But there are ways to guide your thinking, she and others said. Here are a few things to consider as you decide how best to help victims of natural disasters.
— Identify your values before donating
When considering how to give, it’s helpful to start by asking what motivates you.
“You pick the issue with your heart and you pick the organization with your head,” said Jacob Harold, the chief executive of GuideStar, a nonprofit that publishes information about charities in an effort to promote transparency.
People with ties to a region may want to give locally. Animal lovers may want to give to a shelter. Others may want their money directed to certain groups of people, like children, or causes, like public health.
Many opt to leave the decision to the charities themselves, which is sometimes best: “If you’re trusting them with your money, you should trust them to spend it well,” Harold said.
— Decide how to spend your time
Your time is a resource, too, and you should decide how you want to spend it.
Some people prefer to deeply research the charities they support, while others simply want to know they’re giving to a trustworthy group.
For those who prefer the latter, Harold recommends groups like Global Giving, which collects donations and redistributes the funds to vetted, locally focused organizations.
— Do your research before you give
Evaluating a charity is often the most daunting part of donating, but it doesn’t have to be.
In addition to GuideStar and Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Watch offer helpful resources.
Tax filings and other documents can shed light on a group’s operations, but donors should look beyond the numbers, too, experts said. That includes reviewing an organization’s website, annual report, governing board and mission.
“If the organization is only talking about the problem, but not talking about how the work they do leads to solutions to that problem, that is a red flag,” Harold said.
Ask questions about the charity, including how much experience it has in disaster relief, how long it’s been around, how it measures accomplishments, and how others in the field talk about it.
He also said that too much focus is often placed on overhead, a measure of administrative and fundraising costs. While it can signal inefficient spending or, worse, fraud, some overhead is necessary to support a nonprofit’s long-term viability.
— Cash is often the best way to help
It may feel impersonal, but money is often the most useful form of donation. Unlike goods, financial gifts have no associated transportation costs.
A $20 pair of jeans, for example, would cost about $165 to ship from Washington, D.C., to the capital of Honduras, according to an online calculator developed by the University of Rhode Island. That money could instead be used locally to buy 24 blankets, nearly 33,000 liters of water or a variety of other supplies, according to the calculator.
There are secondary benefits, too: With cash, relief organizations can support local economies, according to the Center for International Disaster Information, which was created by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
— Follow up later. Recovery takes a long time.
Donations surge in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but recoveries unfold over a much longer timeline.
For that reason, donors should consider sustained involvement with charities, whether that involves checking up on how resources were spent and how needs have changed weeks or months down the line or making automatic monthly contributions.
“Becoming a repeated supporter is super helpful to the organizations,” Rusnock said.