Charity Choices

A Resource for Donors

How to respond to a disaster

Over the past decade there have been awful series of disasters around the world and in this country that have generated a large response from people who want to help – Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the tsunamis in Asia and Japan, the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, the list is unfortunately very long. 

When a disaster happens, what’s the best way to respond? 

Most charities urge people not to send donations of supplies like clothing and food, assuming the disaster is in a place to which someone will need to ship what they’re donating.  The logistics of shipping and distributing items in a disaster area are extremely challenging.  Donations of money are almost always easier to handle and can be used in ways that will provide the most help. 

Many people also are willing to volunteer, which can be very helpful if the logistics of getting you there and organizing your work are possible.  One organization that tries to coordinate volunteers in response to disasters is All Hands Volunteers. 

If what you can offer is money, that will be greatly appreciated by the charities that are responding to a disaster.  Even small donations, offered by many people, communicate that people care about those hurt in a disaster, and that is a step towards recovery.

How do you decide which charities to support?

Do some research.

In compiling information about charities responding to disasters, we’ve found that a good indicator of how much a charity is doing is how much it says about what it is doing on its website. Many charities are very specific about their response to a disaster and regularly provide updates. Others are much more general in what they say about responding. 

Try to do more than respond only when a disaster occurs. 

Try also to respond over time. This is a hard piece of advice to follow. When disaster happens, we naturally want to do something immediately to support those impacted by it.

But inevitably, the impact of all disasters is felt for a very long time. And it always takes time to organize a response to a particular disaster. Many special funds were created over a few days or weeks to help raise money to help people and communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, for example. We personally ended up waiting and then supporting some of these special funds.
Give local if possible.

Especially when a disaster impacts a large urban area like Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast -- areas that already often have many community organizations -- finding ways to support local organizations makes sense. Hugh Hogan, formerly of the North Star Fund, a community foundation in New York City, believes that the need to support local organizations is one of the lessons of the response to Hurricane Sandy.

"We realized that city and state agencies and large relief organizations did not have the expertise, networks or trust to aid many of the hardest hit communities, especially in neighborhoods that are home to low-income blacks, Latinos and other immigrants and elderly people who live on fixed incomes," Hogan wrote in Philanthropy Today.

Hogan’s article noted many examples of community organizations that were the first to reach people living in their communities.
Many national and international disaster relief charities find local organizations or churches to partner with when they respond to a disaster.

Support charities you know.

A good way to respond to disasters is to support an organization you already know. There are many charities that regularly respond to natural disasters. Supporting a charity over time allows you to learn about how it responds to crises and to build confidence that it is effective.

Support charities that work to prevent disasters.

Try to think not just about helping people and communities recover from disasters, but also how to prevent future disasters. In relation to a hurricane, for example, this may involve supporting a charity that is advocating about global climate change, or an organization that is focusing on specific steps communities can take, such as rebuilding and protecting estuaries and wetlands or making high-rise apartment buildings less vulnerable to power outages caused by flooding.

Give to the Red Cross?

Most donations after disasters go to the Red Cross. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy, nearly 90% of the money donated in response had gone to the Red Cross, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. It is set up to respond quickly to a disaster.
One concern about giving to the Red Cross has been that donations made in response to a specific disaster do not necessarily go to support people and communities affected by that disaster. Instead, according to the Red Cross website, donations go to "where the need is greatest." This is true of many national and international charities that respond to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.
By building up its disaster relief fund, the Red Cross can respond quickly to crises without waiting for donations.

There are other questions about the effectiveness of the Red Cross, which is a very large organization.  ProPublica, a nonprofit media organization that does in-depth investigations, has reported on the Red Cross response to Sandy and the earthquake in Haiti. 

All this said, for many smaller disasters, the Red Cross is often the first organization that can respond because of it has affiliates in so many places. 

More than which charities you support, the key is that you do what you can in response to a disaster.  It adds up and makes a difference, like all charitable giving. 

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When a disaster happens, what’s the best way to respond?