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4 steps to take before donating to charity

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Highlights
  • When it comes to providing disaster funds, find a charity with a proven track record.
  • Food and clothing aren't typically needed because charities get them from companies.
  • Charities encourage unrestricted charitable donations so they can spend as they see fit.

It's been a banner year for natural disasters, from tsunamis and tropical storms to simultaneous drought and floods in the central U.S. You want to help, but where do you start?

Here's how to ensure your charitable donation can have the best effect in a place that needs it most.

Find the right charity

When it comes to providing disaster relief, find a charity with a proven track record. American Red Cross is the biggest disaster-relief organization in the U.S., and they also help overseas. The Salvation Army and Convoy of Hope also are established charities. If you're still uncertain, check the website for National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, based in Arlington, Va., at Nvoad.org. It gives information on 50 disaster-relief organizations active in the U.S. and worldwide.

Also think local, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which runs the nonprofit rating website Charitywatch.org. "Religious organizations often have strong connections to the affected communities, so your house of worship may be working with one there to receive help. Same with organizations working to help minorities and the working poor, like the NAACP and United Way," Borochoff says.

Remember that not every charity responds in the same way. Some are focused on providing medical assistance and others on housing. Some are focused on short-term relief and others on long-term rebuilding efforts. Think about what you want your charitable donation to accomplish, and then take the time to find charities doing that work.

Call before showing up

It's not hard to pack up a box of supplies and send it to a hard-hit place where people need help, but this kind of charitable donation is just not practical, says Meghan O'Hara, manager of in-kind donations for the American Red Cross. "Putting your goods in a bag and dropping them off is well-meaning, but it puts the relief organization in the position of stopping what they're doing to look through, sort and warehouse them," she says.

O'Hara says food and clothing aren't typically needed because charities often partner with companies to acquire large amounts of them. If the disaster hasn't knocked out your phone service, it's best to call first and see what the charity needs, O'Hara says. A good alternative to boxing up your old clothing is to have a garage sale, letting shoppers know it's for disaster relief, and turn the cash earned into a worthy donation.

Same goes for volunteering efforts. Don't just show up. "Call the organization first, ask what skills it needs, and let it know what you can offer and when you're available," O'Hara says. "If we know you're coming beforehand, we can ensure the volunteer experience is better for you."

Decide whether to designate

Generally, charities encourage unrestricted charitable donations so they can spend as they see fit. "But with disaster-related giving, you can choose to specify that you want your donation only used for this particular crisis," Borochoff says.

One thing not to designate is the building of new homes. " Remember that home insurance covers property disaster," Borochoff says. "Designate funds for things not covered by the government and for-profit companies."

Time your donations

Usually, media attention and charitable donations flood in and then peter out quickly. But affected areas out of the spotlight still need help. For example, the Red Cross still is running a shelter in Minot, N.D., for people whose homes were flooded in June.

If you send money right after a disaster, don't expect immediate results. It takes time for charities to assess problems and develop ways to solve them. But the slow-but-steady method means your donations aren't being spent quickly and ineffectively.

Borochoff recommends first contacting the charity to find out about their budget planning. "Ask how much they want to raise, how much of it they've received so far and how they want to spend it. It may not be something they can do right after disaster strikes, but they should have it put together a few weeks later.

"Contact them then and find out if they're closer to their goal. That's often when your donation will matter most," Borochoff says.

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