The events that have unfolded in Japan over the past week are horrifying, sad, and devastating.  The country is facing death and destruction at the hands of a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami. Now they are also on the verge of a nuclear disaster.  Many countries and organizations are pledging volunteers, supplies and money to help.  But what about you, average Joe citizen, how can you help?  How can you be sure that your hard-earned money will actually go to the people who need it?  How can you be sure that it will get there as fast as it can, instead of months later?  How can you be sure that half of what you’re giving isn’t going to “administrative” fees?  If you are inclined to donate, please keep the following guide I have created in mind before you write that check, hand over that cash, or push “Send”.

Finding a Reputable Charity

One great resource to finding a charity to donate to is CharityNavigator.com.  Using this site, you can search through their database of charities and find one that interests you.  Each charity has star ratings as well as a complete, detailed profile.  Information is included such as the organizations efficacy, how much goes to administrative costs, and so on.  There are also links that will take you to the charity’s site where you can complete your donation.

See Where Your Money is Going

Be wary of the organization that assures you that 100 percent of your donation goes to help the victims or particular effort.  They are likely not being truthful.  Every organization, even charitable non-profits, have some overhead expenses.   To make sure that you get the most bang for your buck, you’ll want to be sure that you avoid middlemen.  Some groups may simply collect the money and then pass it on to more hands-on charities.  Avoid diluting your dollars by giving directly to groups that are already on the ground and helping the victims in Japan.

Be Skeptical of Offers that Promise to Donate Money for Things You Buy

Lady Gaga’s heart might be in the right place with the new bracelet she has launched, with all profits going to help the victims in Japan, but you’re really not helping as much as you could.  If your goal is to help and not score some cool gear, you’re better off giving directly to the charity yourself.  The entire cost of that $5 item isn’t going to Japan, only the profits are, and what the company might deem to be “profit” can be kind of sketchy.  From that five dollars, subtract the cost to produce the item, to market it, etc.  If you’re going to spend anyways though, by all means, spend away – at least a portion will go to help.

Forget Putting Together Your Own Care Package

While it might be tempting to put together a “care” package for a needy family in Japan, it’s probably not the best idea.  Right now, infrastructure is severely damaged in some areas, making things like delivering packages impossible.  It’s also a logistical nightmare.  You’re better off giving to a group with people on the ground and a plan in action.

Reconsider Texting Your Donation

Making donations through a simple text message became popular during 2010′s massive earthquake in Haiti.  But one thing that a lot of people didn’t seem to know was that there’s a delay between when you send the money by text.  The charities don’t get it for at least 30 days later.  And while Japan will likely need help for many months and years to come, if you are wanting your money to help immediately, it’s better to send them a check or money order by mail.  They’ll get it a lot faster that way.  Even using your debit card or Paypal balance is a lot faster.  Just keep in mind that when you donate digitally, there will be hidden fees taken out of your total donation, so it will get diluted somewhat.

Avoid Newly Formed Charities

Getting a new charity off the ground is a difficult venture in itself.   In the midst of a disaster it’s virtually impossible to succeed.  You wouldn’t trust your life savings to a financial firm that just opened, has no track record, and whose employees have zero experience, so why would you donate to a brand new charity?  Find a charity with a proven history of success, and ideally one that’s already on the ground in Japan helping. Research before you write that check.

Watch Out for Scams

In the wake of disasters, it seems that while there are a lot of people willing to help out there are also plenty of unsavory types looking to cash in on your goodwill for their own devious means.  You’re better off sending in your money to an official organization’s address than handing it over to a person going around collecting donations. While they might actually be doing good, there’s a chance they’re just looking to run off with your money.

Some Carefully Vetted Charities That I Recommend

  • Doctors Without Borders USA
  • American Red Cross
  • Save the Children
  • Relief International
  • Food for the Hungry
  • Direct Relief International
  • AmeriCares
  • Action Against Hunger
  • Catholic Medical Mission Board
  • World Vision
  • Global Giving
  • International Medical Corps
  • Convoy of Hope
  • Oxfam America

All of these organizations are have high ratings on CharityNavigator.com, and have people already in place in Japan distributing aid.  You can find additional lists of reputable organizations to give your donation to on their website as well.  If you don’t see a charity listed either on my list here or on their list that’s not to say it’s a scam, but you’ll want to make sure you do your research first.

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