Japan and Beyond: Advice for Donating After Disasters

A series of dos and don'ts to help you make the best donation decisions after a disaster, like the current crisis in Japan.
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The following is a series of dos and don'ts to help you make the best donation decisions after a disaster, like the current crisis in Japan.

Do determine if the country is accepting international assistance
With all the photos and videos of destruction on the evening news, it may seem impossible that governments would not want outside assistance. However, just because there has been a disaster does not mean that the local government and local aid organizations are not capable of reaching and helping those in need. Before sending your donation find out what, if any, assistance the government is allowing. Check to see if the aid organization you're considering donating to is offering that same type of assistance.

Do look at a variety of nonprofits before giving
There are hundreds of organizations that respond to most disasters, take the time to evaluate a few before giving. Also, just because they have name recognition does not mean they're best able to respond to the disaster. Look for organizations that were operating in the country before the disaster, they will be able to respond more quickly and know the local culture, politics and needs better. Giving to local organizations is great, unfortunately they can be difficult to find and may not have a website or if they do, it may not be in English.

Places to find lists of organizations involved in the recovery efforts include:

InterAction for many U.S. organizations
Reliefweb.int for organizations from many different countries
Dochas for Irish aid organizations

Do look for organizations with prior experience and expertise
There is a great deal of money after well-publicized disasters. The ease of raising money makes it tempting to respond even if the organization does not have prior experience in that area. After the 2004 tsunami, many organizations with no prior experience built boats or houses. I attended one handover ceremony where the boats actually sank during the ceremony because they weren't properly sealed. There is a steep learning curve when nonprofits move out of their normal area of work, this may lead to mistakes and wasted money. Make sure the organization has prior experience in their proposed projects.

Don't donate to a project just because it's "sexy"
Recovery projects that are inherently attractive to donors -- such as orphanages or boats -- are easier to fund but may not be what is most needed. After the 2004 tsunami, orphanages were built in excess of what was really needed. I had an orphanage approach me looking for orphans to house. So much money was given to orphanages in Indonesia that some families resorted to abandoning their children at the orphanages because they could not feed and clothe them. It would have been far better if the donations had supported the family so they could care for their children themselves. Boats were also heavily funded leading to far more boats built than were actually lost and a real concern for over-fishing.

Don't earmark funds
The organization is on the ground and has a far better idea of what is needed the most than someone half the world away. Earmarking funds may force the organization to spend money where it's not needed and keep it from funding the projects that are needed the most. After the tsunami in Thailand, an organization had money earmarked for two truckloads of rice. By the time they arrived in the area four months after the tsunami, shipments of rice were no longer needed. Because the money had been earmarked the organization had to contact donors to get permission to use the money in different ways. If you trust the organization, allow them to make professional decisions on how to best use your donation; if you don't trust them then, find another organization to donate to.

Don't evaluate an organization based on the amount spent on administration costs
The amount an organization spends on administration is no indication of its quality. The pressure to keep administration costs low may lead to organizations under-staffing their projects or hiring unqualified staff that may not have the skills to do their job. They may equip their staff with the tools and resources needed to do their job well. Or they may focus on inherently cheaper programs even if they are not what is most needed. Additionally, project costs and administration costs are easy to manipulate.

Do ensure that the nonprofit is legitimate before giving
After the 2004 tsunami, there were several fake charities created. In Thailand, a man took photos of houses under construction and then posted the pictures on his own website saying that it was his organization's work. Donors should verify that the nonprofit is real before giving. Google the exact name and be careful that they haven't used a name that is almost identical to a well-known charity. If the organization has been in operation for a while there should be a history of them on the web including links to conferences their staff have attended, newspaper articles written about them, or meeting minutes.

Donate only through the organization's website to ensure you aren't giving money to someone sending out a sham e-mail or creating a fake Facebook page.

Don't expect the funds to be spent immediately
The initial relief phase encompasses search and rescue, immediate medical care, food, water and shelter. After that, the much longer recovery and reconstruction phase begins. Organizations that feel pressure from donors to complete their work quickly may try to speed their work by cutting corners, leaving aid recipients out of the decision-making process, avoiding coordinating with other organizations, or ending projects before they're able to survive on their own. In Thailand, there were numerous instances of houses being built before the land title was cleared, requiring litigation. Some families faced losing their houses a few years later. Allow the organizations adequate time to ensure they are providing help in the best way possible.

Do consider holding off some of your donations until later in the rebuilding process
Immediately after a disaster is prime fundraising time for nonprofits. Appeals are issued before there's any clear idea of what is needed or how much they can actually help. If an organization receives more money than it can use for the type of help it provides, it has one of four options. It can divert the excess funds to other programs in other countries, it can provide assistance in excess of what is actually needed, it can move out of its area of expertise and do projects it's not skilled at, or it can subcontract other agencies to work in other areas. Rebuilding after a disaster takes years, waiting a few weeks or months before donating everything you plan to give will allow you to make additional funding decisions once the situation on the ground is clearer.

Don't take up a collection of goods to send over
After the tsunami, tons of used clothing were donated, much of it inappropriate to the climate and culture. There were winter hats, coats, and gloves donated to southern Thailand and mountains of donated clothing were dumped beside the road in India. Donated goods can clog ports and prevent more critical relief items from getting through. Ports can only hold and process so many goods and often the port authorities have difficulty sorting through everything arriving. Please do not take up collections of medicine, clothing, baby formula, or food for shipment, or show up on your own to hand out money or goods. Although well-intentioned, this can actually make the situation worse as it adds to the confusion, diverts resources, and may lead to aid dependency.

Don't go over individually to volunteer
Many people want to volunteer in the recovery efforts. Unless you have a specific skill and speak the language, however, there is often very little the individual can contribute that local people could not do. Local people need the work as many of them lose their livelihoods in the disaster. Even if you have a specialized trade, such as a doctor or an architect, your credentials may not be recognized in that country. In addition you will likely not find an international charity able to take you on because of liability issues and the fact that you don't have prior disaster experience and training. Small local organizations may be willing to use volunteers, but their needs are for website developers, grant writers, and other office jobs. Your chances of working in the villages are small unless you speak the language and understand the culture.

Do consider donating an equal amount of money to disaster preparedness programs
Programs that help communities prepare for and respond to disasters save more lives and are more cost-effective than large rescue operations after the disaster. This becomes even more important with the increasing rate of natural disasters. After each disaster the first people to respond are neighbors, friends, family and local disaster response teams. Consider donating to organizations in other countries -- or even your own hometown -- that help communities prepare for and respond to future disasters.

Don't support any adoptions or evacuations of orphans
After each disaster, there are attempts to adopt or evacuate orphans. However, many of these "orphans" have parents or other living relatives desperate to care for them. Priority should be placed on efforts to reunite children with their relatives. Evacuating the orphans from the country or putting them up for adoption may forever separate them from their family.

Don't assume there is a body overseeing and regulating the aid
Most people assume that some entity, such as the UN, oversees international aid to ensure that it's well done and getting where it is most needed. In reality, the UN has no direct control over nonprofits, which makes it difficult to coordinate the relief efforts and ensure all the aid provided is appropriate and well done. The two attempts to create a regulatory body, once under the UN, and once under the League of Nations that proceeded the UN, both failed. Without this, it is up to the government hit by the disaster to monitor and control the flood of assistance into their country. This can be impossible for many local governments. The best way to stop ineffectual or bad aid is to only donate to organizations that you are certain are competent and skilled at their work.

Do take the time to make informed decisions
Take the time to understand the situation and make educated donor decisions. There are many resources here to help you do that. Your decision as to which nonprofits receive your donations matters.

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