How to give effectively to emergency relief

With the Nepalese earthquake disaster in the headlines (at least for today), it feels timely to talk about giving to emergency relief.

Responding to a tragedy such as this week’s earthquake, many of us feel a huge imperative to help. Unless we possess highly specialist relevant technical skills (and not always then) , the best thing we can do to help is to give money.

But who to? Already media outlets are full of charity appeals for Nepal and there will be many more in the days to come. Organisations from the biggest and most famous to ones you’ve never heard of will be out appealing across myriad media outlets and channels. How to chose between them? How do you know that your money will be used in as effective way as possible?

I don’t claim to have a perfect answer to this question, but there are some simple ways of evaluating charities in an emergency appeal context which should at least mean that you can give with confidence that your money won’t be misused.

Firstly, be realistic about what will happen to your money. For a sudden onset emergency like an earthquake, the immediate response to the disaster will come from people on the ground, it’s neighbours and the local community who will be carrying out the search and rescue together, hopefully, with the local emergency services and army. A donation to any NGO won’t go towards this work because it will be over by the time the charity starts work. What the NGOs will be doing is providing emergency shelter, medical and health services. Again though much of this will be supplied locally in a country like Nepal.  Actually what most money from international donors, private and government, goes to is the reconstruction effort afterwards. It’s simply a matter of time and logistics. So, for example, the billions of dollars of private donations raised for the Indian Ocean Tsunami victims were spent over a period of nearly a decade on rebuilding the wrecked communities.

I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with that (although charities need to be a bit careful in how they message their fundraising efforts in that context). Responding to a disaster should mean helping people rebuild their lives afterwards. Funding this reconstruction is usually a lot harder than getting money for the immediate response.

But lots of donors want to give as immediately as possible. So what does that mean for the individual donor looking for a charity to support?

Here are some things to look for

  • Does the charity already work in that country? If it doesn’t I’d look for one that does. The exception would be the Red Cross family who will fund the Red Cross affiliate in that country which is usually one of the best placed organisations to respond (definitely so in the case of Nepal).
  • Look for charities who specialise in emergency response.  Running a community development project does not make you competent at emergency medical support, shelter or water and sanitation. Find the experts, as long as they are actually there on the ground or arriving soon.  Again, sending people from the West isn’t necessarily the right response.
  • Beware organisations sending stuff. In most circumstances the emergency supplies needed will be much more effectively sourced locally, or at least regionally, than sent from the West. So as well as not giving goods yourself I’d be very wary of anybody sending supplies out.
  • Of course you should only give to properly registered charities with published accounts and transparent websites. And definitely not to new charities set up for this crisis.
  • Make sure your donation is going to a specific emergency response fund for this disaster. Unless you are happy to fund the charity generally.
  • Look at what feedback the charity provides to donors. What is their reporting like? Look at their social media feeds to get a sense of what they are actually doing on the disaster now.
  • Finally, if you can’t find an organisation you are confident in, you can give with confidence to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, assuming there is one for the crisis in question.  (This is just UK but there’s no bar to anyone from any country to donating via them). DEC appeals are all independently evaluated with the reports (which can be quite critical) published on their website. But bear in mind that the bulk of monies raised will be spent on long term recovery work.

Don’t be put off from giving to an emergency. There are plenty of organisations who will use your money well.  Just a little due diligence can find the charities worth giving to.

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