(Image: Diocese of Knoxville)
With Hurricane Harvey’s devastating meander through south Texas and Louisiana over the past few days, the nation’s attention has been transfixed.
For Mississippians who remember Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, seeing the destruction from Harvey has opened a lot of old memories. It has also created an outpouring of sympathy and desire to help ease the suffering, as many of us remember what it feels like to lose everything to rampaging wind and water.
As I’ve watched news coverage, I was taken back to a time when endless lines of tractor-trailer rigs full of supplies were arriving at staging centers and shelters, providing much-needed aid and assistance. During the next few days, donations poured in from around the globe, and we Mississippians will remain forever grateful for the helping hands that lifted us up during a time of great need. The disaster showed humanity at its finest. Today, aid is pouring in once again, but this time to help our neighbors in Texas and Louisiana.
While media accounts are full of good will and people demonstrating a selfless and often-heroic dedication to helping their fellow man, unfortunately there are people who would seek to profit. Sometimes, they gouge prices for essential items. Other times they prey on disaster victims with home-repair scams, sell flood-damaged cars without disclosing that fact, or set up fake charities that only line the pockets of scammers. Since Mississippi is perennially at or near the top of the list of most-generous states, and many of us are eager to pay forward the generosity we’ve received, it’s advisable to act with caution.When making a decision about where to send a donation, carefully consider the organization you’re considering, and ask these questions:
When making a decision about where to send a donation, carefully consider the organization you’re considering, and ask these questions:
Is it legitimate? Many “nonprofit” organizations spring up overnight, and might call you with names similar to ones you know. But these “sound-alike” operations are really just trying to cash in on the disaster. If you get a call from a charity, be careful and request information if you’re not familiar with them. (Keep in mind that donations will be needed for months or even years to come, so there shouldn’t be a rush.) There are several ways to research charities online, including the Mississippi secretary of state’s office; BBB Wise Giving Alliance (give.org); Charity Navigator; Charity Watch and Guidestar.
Is it capable? Just because an organization is started by people with good hearts and the right intentions doesn’t mean they can actually do the job. Anybody can set up a charity and collect donations, and these are often well-meaning. But there’s a lot more to running an organization than just providing services “on the ground.” Effective disaster relief means understanding the need, having access to (and contacts with) local people to help coordinate relief and managing the work of volunteers. Look for organizations with an established track record in disasters.
Is it a good steward? Many organizations are already involved in the Harvey relief effort, and more will be in the days to come. A lot of money is being donated. But organizations should be careful to be good stewards of your money. It an organization is going to take 60 cents out of every dollar you spend to pay for expenses to run the operation, it means that only 40 cents of every dollar is going directly to the cause you want it to help. Donors should always ask this question, but keep in mind that zero “overhead” (for example, a claim that 100 percent of funds go to help flooded families) is difficult to maintain. Instead, look for a reasonable level of expenses.
Is it appropriate? After every hurricane, charities are often inundated with donated clothing and household items. These often overwhelm local organizations, and most end up in landfills. So, instead of donating your ‘70s disco wardrobe, consider donating money instead. And if you’re dead-set on collecting items, consider having a garage sale of the items, then donating the proceeds.
Finally, if you’re considering donating your time and effort, that’s wonderful. But don’t just throw a chainsaw in the truck and head to Texas. Contact a local church or relief organization. This will not only help ensure you’ll have meaningful work to do, it will help reduce the strain on an already-overwhelmed relief effort.