Make it matter: Hurricane Harvey relief

(Photo: FEMA)

(Photo: FEMA)

The silver lining, if any, to a disaster like Hurricane Harvey is that it brings out the best in so many of us, eager to rush in and help out in anyway possible. And certainly we’ve seen plenty of acts of heroism and generosity over the past few days in the Houston area.

Over that same period of time I’ve seen just as many posts on social media by friends and colleagues who can’t be on the ground there asking how else they can help and where best to make a donation.

For me these times always harken back to my days with the Attorney General’s office in New Jersey, where I handled consumer and charitable fraud cases.  It was truly eye-opening work, as I’d never really appreciated the depth of deception at work in the commercial world, and with the charities work it was often times heart-breaking – learning for example that in many cases more than 90 cents on a dollar was going to pay the telemarketer soliciting your contribution as opposed to meeting the need at hand.

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I’ve seen this play out time and again since I left that position, particularly when it comes to seniors.

When I began to help out my now 82-year-old mother with her finances, I was stunned to discover that she had been making monthly donations to a whole host of organizations that had sent her mail solicitations (a former foster child, she was particularly susceptible to those allegedly helping kids).  All told, her contributions added up to a significant amount of her fixed monthly income.

We all want our donations to matter, to go directly to help those who need it, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  To make that happen though, we should do a little homework.

The Federal Trade Commission, state consumer affairs offices and FEMA all provide quick steps to take to ensure you’re making a worthwhile contribution; boiled down, those steps amount to knowing who’s taking your money.

It’s the same advice I give my mother: Give to those you know, those organizations you see at work in your own community.  Give locally if you can; for Hurricane Harvey, that means the groups on the ground right now providing essentials: food, shelter, diapers etc.  The New York Times has a good list of those groups here.

                                                   Charity Navigator risk alerts

                                                   Charity Navigator risk alerts

As is the case with all disasters, plenty of so-called charitable groups may pop up quickly, ostensibly to aid Hurricane Harvey victims, and then disappear with your money just as fast, before any meaningful vetting can occur.

If you’re uncomfortable giving to local groups acting in immediate response to the hurricane, you can go with more established organizations that have been assessed by sites like Charity Navigator, which examine the records of public charities for their financial health and their accountability and transparency.

Charity Navigator reviews the records of organizations to determine whether they’re financially viable and share accurate factual information about how they’re using donations – rating them on a four-star basis (four being the best) and also highlighting whether information exists warranting additional concern (identified by levels of risk on a compass.)

Other sites to check for an assessment of a charity's wherewithal: Better Business Bureau's (BBB) Wise Giving AllianceCharity Watch, or GuideStar.

It's worth keeping in mind that it'll take years for the Houston area to rebuild, and for Hurricane Harvey victims, the need for relief and aid will continue for just as long. Five years later, some victims of New Jersey's Hurricane Sandy are still waiting for disaster-relief funds. 

There's plenty of time, then, to do a little homework and ensure that your donations will be meaningfully spent.