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Guidelines on Donations to International Disasters

Posted November 2nd, 2011
by Staff Writers

Guidelines on Donations to International Disasters

When we hear news of disasters throughout the world, our hearts naturally go out to those affected. The first thought is often, “What can I do to help?” In natural disasters like fires, floods and hurricanes, people need immediate assistance with basic necessities: shelter, food, water, bedding and clothing. Often help is needed in locating victims or providing medical care. People affected by war, political regime changes or long-term effects of weather such as droughts may have to leave their native lands and and seek shelter, food and water. Appeals for help for most major disasters are made to the international community.

How can you determine which relief agencies are valid or worthwhile when you want to donate money, material goods or time? To some extent, the decision is determined by a donor’s interests, values and capacity to give. There are, however, ways to evaluate the worthiness and effectiveness of relief agencies.

Non-Profit and Charitable Designation

In most countries, governments assign tax or cultural designations that indicated that an agency meets specifications to be considered a charitable organization. In the United States, non-profit or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are designated by the Internal Revenue Service as 501(c) for tax exempt status.

The designation 501(c)(3) is granted to charitable, educational, religious and scientific organizations that have a stated purpose. They must operate only for the purpose of the exemption. They may not use their money for private benefit and are restricted in how much political lobbying they can do. An organization with this designation will clearly state so in its literature and must show proof of its tax-exempt status if asked.

Each non-profit organization must complete an IRS 990 form every year. The information required includes assets, expenditures and a list of beneficiaries. Many NGOs publish their 990s so that the public can see how they use their funds. The filed forms of each NGO are also available from the IRS.

There are thousands of worthwhile charitable relief organizations throughout the world, from those under the aegis of the United Nations to small grass-roots organizations. Because many donors wish to take advantage of the tax benefits of charitable giving, several international organizations have affiliated U. S. chapters with 501(c) status. A few are Oxfam U.S., Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), International Red Cross and Red Crescent, Hope and Save the Children.

Oversight and Watchdog Organizations

Several trustworthy national and international organizations have alliances with legitimate NGOs worldwide so that donors can be assured of a charitable organization’s accountability and effectiveness. The United Nations works through agencies like the World Food Program (WFP), save the Children and the World Health Organization. It also hosts volunteer programs that train and place volunteers in sites throughout the world.

The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI), , a partner of the United Sates Agency for International Development (USAID), prefers donations of cash. They argue that money gives flexibility and can be used on relevant goods and services within the local economy. For example, donations of some foods items may not be appropriate for the target community, like canned hams shipped to an area populated by Muslims, who do not eat pork. In addition, transporting heavy items is expensive and requires warehouse facilities to store them once they arrive, adding an additional burden to aid agencies in the affected area. CIDI also provides links to organizations that rate the effectiveness, accountability and transparency of charities.

The United States Better Business Bureau (BBB) serves as a charity watchdog through its Wise Giving Alliance, evaluating the effectiveness of giving programs of thousands of charities. The BBB guidelines advocate public disclosure of an organization’s spending. At least 65 percent of total expenses should be allocated to programs and activities and no more than 35 percent of its total related contributions spent on fund raising. A list of charities and their evaluations is provided on-line.

InterAction represents an alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs who work in every developing country throughout the world. Links to their affiliates and their websites are provided.


Many not-for-profit organizations rely on volunteers to implement their programs. CIDI, for example, recruits volunteer operators to staff hotlines as part of the response effort for international disasters. Agencies need volunteers for projects like collection and sorting goods, providing administrative and clerical support or staffing special events. Bilingual volunteers can help in populations that need translators. Some agencies recruit trained volunteers to assist in relief efforts in the affected area, like doctors and medical support staff or those with technical skills required onsite.

The national chapters of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), , provide disaster relief on a local level. Each society is served by staff and volunteers from the local community. The Society is neutral and impartial, and is therefore often given access to people in need when other agencies are not allowed into an affected area.

Volunteers around the world support efforts by coordinating donations. For example, the 2011 tsunami in Japan destroyed more than half of the hospitals in Myagi prefecture. This put a strain on the remaining hospitals and affected care of survivors, especially the elderly. Red Cross and Red Crescent partners worldwide are funding new hospitals in the area.

The Turkish Red Crescent Society helped Syrian refugees who fled their homes during political unrest in 2011. More than 10,000 people occupy camps with poor water supply and little access to food. The Turkish Society works with the Syrian Red Crescent Society (SRCS) to provide relief supplies to camps near the border. Within Syria, the SRCS operates in areas inaccessible to other groups because of their neutrality.

Although you may want to help at a disaster site, the cost and logistics of transporting, housing and feeding volunteers diverts resources and adds responsibility to locals assisting those in need. Often, the greater need is for volunteers at an organization’s office. People with disaster relief experience such as search and rescue, firefighting or first aid may be used onsite; otherwise, crowds add congestion and confusion.

Volunteering in a foreign country has its risks. In unstable areas, volunteers have been kidnapped, held for ransom and killed. Medical volunteers risk contracting the infectious diseases they are trying to control like malaria, dengue fever or cholera. The empathy for those who suffer and the desire to alleviate pain and desperation often surpass concern for one’s own safety. Volunteering allows ordinary people to make a difference and benefits us all.

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