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How to Make Sure Your Disaster Relief Dollars Do the Most Good

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When natural disasters strike, many Americans open their pocketbooks to help the victims. They are doing so again in the aftermath of Hurricane (then Tropical Storm) Irene’s disastrous blitz up the Eastern Seaboard this past weekend.

However, potential donors are often unsure where or even when they can do the most good with their contributions. Cynthia Strauss, director of research at Fidelity Charitable, writes on the organization’s website that “planning begins with some advance thinking about when and where to give and how to have the most impact.”

Strauss lists four phases of relief work, each requiring different amounts of support in dollars and time:

  • Phase 1 begins immediately, focusing on restoring order to the affected area.
  • This quickly segues into Phase 2 when residents work toward stabilization and a return to daily activities.
  • Phases 3 and 4 involve community-led rebuilding and ongoing preparedness education to mitigate future catastrophe.

Often the toughest decision for donors is which organization to support among sundry ones that tend to spring up in the aftermath of a disaster. Strauss recommends basic research to find a charity that has demonstrated expertise and a good track record in the affected region.

Also important is a group’s focus and whether it is local, national or international. In Phase 1, national and international organizations are better equipped to assemble resources and have the know-how and capacity to act immediately, whereas local groups may still be immobilized.

But as Phase 2 begins and indigenous organizations get back on their feet, local charities can offer effective solutions based on their relationships and deep understanding of the affected area.

Another concern is how the donor’s dollars will ultimately be used. For Phase I support made through large organizations, the donor should specify intent so that monies are directed to work related to a particular disaster, Strauss writes.

Work in Phases 2 and 3, which is less focused on triage, requires more flexible funding, ideally in the form of unrestricted gifts. These may bolster an organization’s ability to provide ongoing support to the disaster area.