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How to help with disaster relief

See tips for making disaster relief a part of your overall charitable giving plan.

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Key takeaways

  • For any natural disaster, keep in mind that recovery is a process that takes years. Continuing support through the rebuilding phases can be even more important.
  • When choosing a nonprofit organization to support, consider the organization's priorities, partnerships, size, and scale.
  • Thoroughly research the organizations you plan to support. Remember, there can be a marked difference between a worthy cause and a worthy charity.

2018 has been a historic year for natural disasters in the US, from California wildfires to the recent Hurricane Florence. In their paths, large numbers of homes have been destroyed and thousands of Americans have been displaced.

You may have tracked Florence's progress on The Weather Channel for days on end (admit it). But now, like many people, you are very concerned about thousands of hurricane victims and want to help them put their lives back together. You might have questions, such as:

  • How do I contribute?
  • When is the best time to contribute?
  • Where is the best place to contribute?
  • Can I direct my donations to specific areas?
  • What organizations can I trust?

"Although leading disaster relief organizations have already mobilized thousands of relief workers to help provide temporary shelter, food, water, and other basic needs, substantial recovery efforts are likely to continue for years to come," explains Deborah Segal, vice president at Fidelity Charitable®, a public charity that offers a donor-advised fund program.

"The need for ongoing financial support to help rebuild the many lives and communities affected will remain for months and years to come. In 2017, Fidelity Charitable donors recommended over 21,000 grants for disaster relief support totaling $60 million. In fact, 1 in 10 Fidelity Charitable Giving Accounts supported disaster relief in 2017," she adds.

Want to help? Like many people, you'll want your donations to go to IRS-qualified organizations in a timely and efficient manner. Here are a few things to know about supporting disaster relief organizations, and a few ways you can provide assistance.

When to donate: 4 phases of disaster relief

Nonprofit organizations providing relief efforts for a natural disaster typically receive a high volume of donations in the immediate aftermath of the event. However, offering continued support through the later phases of stabilization and rebuilding is just as vital but often overlooked, and can have even greater importance.

The 4 recognized phases of disaster relief are shown in the chart below:

"So, if you think you are late in contributing to relief efforts for recent events, you clearly are not," adds Segal. "For any natural disaster, recovery is a process that takes years. Remember, rebuilding efforts are still going on in New Orleans some 13 years after Hurricane Katrina hit."

How to donate: Think about which services you want to support

Many people forget that giving to disaster relief presents an opportunity to make your contribution part of your larger charitable giving strategy. One significant way to give is to direct your donation to a specific area (food, shelter, child welfare, animal welfare, etc.) that is personally important to you.

Below is a list of services you could support, along with a graphic that indicates the phase of the relief process during which support of this category is most important.

Also, if much of your giving is made through a religious lens, remember that faith-based charitable organizations are often at the forefront of a local response. For additional information about faith-based giving, contact your particular house of worship or its relief agency to learn more about its role in the rebuilding of communities.

Selecting charities engaged in disaster relief: 4 questions to consider

When choosing a nonprofit organization, consider the organization's priorities, partnerships, size, and scale:

  1. Does it have a strong and established record of excellence in areas important to you?
  2. Has it worked in disaster-related situations before, and in the relevant geographical area?
  3. Does it have sufficient accounting and fiduciary oversight to manage larger-than-normal contributions?
  4. Does it have a track record and commitment to working with other nonprofit organizations, as well as government agencies, to coordinate and deliver vital services?

How to help

Fidelity Charitable has collaborated with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy to compile a list of organizations engaging in relief services for Hurricane Florence. The list includes American Red Cross, All Hands Volunteers, Disaster Relief, Feeding America, the Salvation Army, and Save the Children. These organizations are highlighted because they have existing operations in the region, the ability to incorporate a large influx of donations, and a strong, established record of excellence in disaster relief services.

Tip: To be prepared to assist during future events, consider making disaster relief a component of your overall charitable giving plan. "You may choose, for instance, to earmark a certain percentage of your yearly giving to disaster relief," advises Segal. "Think ahead of time which phases and services you might want to support should an event happen. If there are no disaster events in a given year, you might consider donating those dollars to Phase 4 efforts that include emergency risk reduction and prevention."

Avoiding fraud

In the aftermath of the hurricane, you may have seen news stories about price gouging, looting, and other illicit activities. Sadly, the nonprofit sector is not immune to fraudulent activity. It's always a good idea to practice some due diligence (and even some healthy skepticism at times) before committing your funds to a particular organization. The nonprofits that see more funding aren't just doing impressive work; they're also transparent about how they're doing it. Just because someone asks you to support a worthy effort, it doesn't mean you can't take some time to consider it—just like you would if someone was selling you an investment or a new product.

Tip: Thoroughly research the organizations you plan to support. "Remember, there can be a marked difference between a worthy cause and a worthy charity," says Segal. Not every charity addressing a cause is equally equipped. GuideStar, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, and GiveWell all provide free financial and programmatic information to donors about specific nonprofits. Charity Navigator and GiveWell also assign ratings to the nonprofits, but keep in mind that many nonprofits with a higher overhead may also provide services more effectively. You can also check the Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP) for a wealth of information about how donors can maximize the impact of their giving.

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