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Giving in a time of crisis

By Judy Martel · Bankrate.com
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Posted: 10 am ET

They seem to rumble through every few years: the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the BP Gulf Oil spill, Hurricane Irene and last week the earthquake and landslide in India. In the aftermath of a crisis, people are quick to open their hearts and wallets and can instantly send thousands of dollars across an ocean with a click of a computer mouse.

But if Eileen Heisman, CEO of National Philanthropic Trust, can offer just one piece of advice to donors, it's this: "Take a deep breath."

Devastation from disasters like the earthquake in Haiti prompt us to open our hearts and wallets.

It's worth it to do a little research before sending money to a charity, she says. "I tell people to give with their heart and their head; the heart wants to give immediately, but the head should tell you to wait. Don't write a check right away or go on the Internet or text $10." Not only will you be less likely to fall victim to a scam, but you'll have the opportunity to identify the charity that is doing the best work.

Following are a few more of her tips for making the most of your urge to give when disaster strikes.

Check out the charity

During times of crisis, the need is immediate. Look at charities that already have experience in the area and understand the community. Also consider global charities like Doctors without Borders that have a practiced specialty and can hit the ground running.

There are several organizations dedicated to vetting charities and often the media will make it easy by publishing lists of reputable charities working on the ground.

Donate what is most needed

Giving without thought can almost be like not giving at all. "I remember after 9-11, people in Philadelphia wanted to do something so badly; there were trucks and trucks lined up on the street accepting clothes that people were donating," says Heisman. "Clothes were not needed, but people had an impulse. It was great intention, but misplaced effort."

 It's best not to assume you know the best way to help. Instead, look to those who are experts and then decide how to donate. "Bill Clinton said it best after the Asian tsunami," Heisman says. "He said, 'they need our resources, but they don't need us to tell them what to do.'"

Plan to give today and tomorrow

After the news crews pack up their cameras and go home, the aftermath of the disaster sticks around, sometimes for years. An effective charitable strategy can be to give immediately to an organization like the Red Cross and then follow up with the remainder of the donation later by giving to a charity that is sticking around to rebuild.

After six months, follow up on the charity, Heisman suggests. "Hardly anyone does this, but you can see how well they did and it will help you for the next time."

What's your strategy when giving during a time of crisis?

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