A devastating 7.0 earthquake that leveled much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, already has generous American donors scouring the web for ways to help.
But the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance cautions that if you give too quickly, you could end up enriching con artists and ineffective organizations, rather than sending your money to the groups that can do real good.
"Whenever there is a major natural disaster, there are two things you can count on," said Art Taylor, president and chief executive of the Alliance. "The first is the generosity of Americans willing to donate time and money to help victims and the second is the appearance of poorly run and, in some cases, fraudulent charities."
Focus on feet on the ground
To give wisely, the BBB suggests that donors focus on organizations that already have representatives on the ground in the affected area. The charities should say on their web sites what they're doing and where. For example, World Vision reports that it has 370 staffers in Haiti and is distributing first aid kits, soap, blankets, clothes and water in its initial response.
Mercy Corps, another recognized international charity, says it does not have staff in Haiti, but has extensive experience with earthquake relief. The group says it has been canvassing their emergency operations team as well as veteran relief workers within the organization to find a team to deploy into the area.
Partners in Health, which is one of the largest providers of health care in Haiti, reports that it is organizing teams to provide field triage and emergency care where needed.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is suggesting that Americans give through the Red Cross, which has already pledged $1 million in disaster assistance and says it is throwing open its warehouse in Panama to provide tarps, mosquito nets and cooking sets for approximately 5,000 families.
Give cash, not clothes
It's a natural reaction to want to throw a blanket (from your own closet) over the people you see shivering on television news casts, but everyone involved in the relief effort says the most efficient way to help is to give cash, not clothing or supplies. Given the distance from here to Haiti, relief workers want the flexibility to buy supplies from areas where they can be easily transported into the disaster zone.
Avoid the middleman
The BBB also cautions that you should find out whether the organization that's soliciting help for Haiti is calling on their own behalf, or on the behalf of another group that will actually provide the help. Telephone solicitors for charities often gobble up the vast majority of the donated dollars, sending on only a fraction of what you gave to the organization that's providing the real relief. If you want to give effectively, avoid the middleman, the BBB advises. Give directly to a group that's providing real-time help.
For more information
The White House has also opened a hot line for those looking for further information about the disaster and the American relief response. You can link to that site here.