The Color of Money: Be cautious in donating after natural disasters


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WASHINGTON — The images from the Philippines following the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan are heart-wrenching.

"Totally destroyed," one survivor described the city of Tacloban. In another dispatch from Reuters, one woman talked about her 11 missing family members. "I can't think right now," she told the news service. "I am overwhelmed."

Reports of catastrophic human suffering in an already impoverished country may, as with other natural disasters that seem to hit every year, move you to donate clothes, food or money. But before you give, make sure your generosity is helpful and ends up with an organization that will ensure your gifts are well used.

Con artists see an opportunity to bamboozle people every time disaster strikes. Last year, the Better Business Bureau was warning about scams from bogus contractors as the East Coast was recovering from Hurricane Sandy. The bureau called them "storm chasers."

BBB's Wise Giving Alliance offers the following tips to avoid mistakes in donating to relief efforts:

• Don't make a donation based just on a charity's name. Be careful of startup charities that carry the name of the disaster. Such quickly established organizations may not have the experience to provide aid. Or worse, the group may just be using the name to attract donations fraudulently. Take the time to make sure your money is well spent by a charitable organization that has experience in the area that is suffering, in this case the Philippines.

• Be sure any items you are collecting are needed and can be delivered to victims. The alliance points out that relief charities often prefer to purchase clothing, food and other needed items near the location of the disaster to help speed delivery and avoid freight costs.

• Be careful about appeals coming through email and social media. These warnings are necessary every time there's great need because people's emotions overtake their caution. You see the images of victims and immediately want to be part of the solution. The con artists know this and use the urgency of the situation to create scams.

• Also, be cautious of appeals or websites recommended by friends. I've often received emails from people who think they are doing a good deed by spreading the word. But they may be letting a scoundrel they haven't checked out reach their network of friends and family. And because someone you know forwards the email, you may be less likely to question it. Nevertheless, check out the charity yourself.

• Look into whether the charity is well managed. You can do this by going to give.org, where you can scrutinize a charity's finances. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance has a list of organizations that meet all of the BBB's measurements for charity accountability and have said they are accepting donations for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan. You'll find the list in a release about the mistakes donors make during disasters at www.bbb.org.

You can also find a list of organizations supporting the Philippine relief efforts at www.charitynavigator.org. Click on the link for "Hot Topics" for information about charities' ratings and financial health. Charity Navigator suggests that before you make a donation, you think about the assistance you want to support, such as emergency aid, medical help or long-term relief.

"Due diligence is important," Edward Johnson, president and chief executive of the BBB that serves metropolitan Washington and eastern Pennsylvania, said. "It is also one of the first things people tend to set aside when they hear the news of a calamity. It's easy to become emotional, and for good reason when you see images of the devastation and loss of life. It's important for consumers to remember that their charitable donation will be just as welcome tomorrow as it is today."

Give if you can afford to, but always give with your head as well as your heart.


Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

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