As details continue to emerge about loss of life and those left homeless in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, relief efforts are gearing up. Many charities and nonprofits are soliciting donations to help victims and their families, but it isn't always easy to tell the difference between legitimate appeals for assistance and scams.
Before you reach for your checkbook, read what experts have to say about charitable donations.
1. Check the charity's finances
First of all, experts say it's important to take a little time to research any unfamiliar charitable organization. Make sure they are a registered with the IRS and look at the organization's finances. You can find that that information on websites such as GuideStar.
Tom Pollak, program director for the National Center for Charitable Statistics, advises potential donors to check to see if the nonprofit is financially healthy and make sure it has sufficient resources to get the job done under difficult circumstances.
"Organizations without some financial reserves are often living hand to mouth, which is inevitable when organizations are starving, but it can create difficulties if they are trying fund-raise at the same time they are trying to provide services," Pollak said. "Occasionally we do hear of some services suffering as a result."
Pollak said donors should also look at the organization's track record, whether the board is doing its job well. He recommends websites such as Charity Navigator, which evaluates nonprofits.
Pollak said he also looks at the compensation of executives. "We have small organizations, either the executive directors or the professional fundraisers are paid huge sums of money to run small organizations that raise limited amounts of contributions where one really has to question the value of giving your dollar," Pollak said.
2. Make sure the organization has experience in the region
Before donating to a charity that promotes its efforts to help typhoon survivors, Nina Eliasoph, an associate professor of sociology at University of Southern California, said she would check the organization's experience in dealing with situations in the Philippines, so they know what people there need most.
She pointed to an example after the tsunami in Indonesia. Some people sent shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer to the country.
"If you just want to donate stuff to people and you don't know the society, you may end up donating tons of shampoos and conditioners to poor people, which they might not need at the moment," she said.
3. Be skeptical about direct emails from "victims"
Eliasoph also advised caution with email solicitations. She said don't trust direct emails from individuals who claim they are victims asking you for money.
"It's not only going to be likely a scam, but it might also give you a computer virus, so just don't do it that way," Eliasoph said. "Go through an organization."
4. Don't fall for slick marketing appeals making broad promises
Eliasoph said the more specific a nonprofit's focus, the better — so pay attention to how your donation will be used and what the charity says your money is going toward. Be aware if it will benefit the local community.
5. Don't have time to research? Go with well-established nonprofits.
Eliasoph said if you don't have time to do the research, you may want to consider donating to well-established, large nonprofits.
You may also want to ask your congregation or a group that you are involved in. Find out what charities they work with, she said. Through this "third-hand" connection, you can get a sense of which charities to trust.
"Unfortunately or fortunately, compassion really takes patience and thought and there's no way around that, but it's actually good for you if you do some of the research and thinking because you learn too," Eliasoph said.
More ideas from the Better Business Bureau: Basic Giving Tips