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Charity watchdogs: Follow the dollars

Before making a donation, research the relief agency.

When disaster strikes, people across the globe dig deep into their pockets to help — the majority of the money coming in within weeks of the tragedy. But Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, says in times of crisis people should slow down and research charities prior to reaching for their checkbook.

“When disaster strikes people want to do something, and they want to do something quickly,” he says.“Charities know that and will take advantage of it,” he says.

After the Haiti earthquake many agencies arrived on scene and provided food, water and medical treatment and then took off, even though donors may have thought the organizations were going to be in Haiti long-term.

Sandra Miniutti, marketing director for Charity Navigator, says finding a charity that has worked in the region and knows community leaders is more efficient than helping an organization that may be new to the community.

“So many times after a disaster a lot of well-intentioned people want to roll up their sleeves and help, but the logistics are so massive that even with the best intentions it’s hard to be effective,” she says. “I tell donors to steer clear of new charities. So many charities are trying to help that that in and of itself can become a problem.”

Donors should also insist on finding out exactly how their money will be used, and then following up later to make sure the cash was used properly. “Follow the dollars,” says Borochoff.

With the Web, following the dollars has become easier. Through the use of blogs, videos, online maps, and other social media sites, Miniutti says it’s simple to find the specific ways various charities are helping.

The work of individual churches is harder to track.

Borochoff says churches may not be the best place to donate to for disaster relief because they are not required to make their financial records public. He suggests looking for churches that are willing to reveal their audit reports, before deciding which to give to.

“Religious charities give a bulk of their donations (to relief work),” says Minutti. “But churches are not required to report to the IRS because of the separation of church and state.”

She adds that many people want to drop off their used clothing and household items as a way to help after a disaster. But shipping costs may make those types of donations prohibitive.

“It’s not really efficient,” she says. “I tell donors to take their used items, have a garage sale and turn it into cash, donate it and get a tax deduction. It makes it much easier for everybody,” she said.

Other ways to help include getting involved in local advocacy or educating the public about the tragedy-stricken area.

Several agencies, like the American Institute of Philanthropy and Charity Navigator, are devoted to monitoring charities.

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