The South Asian tsunami disaster is fast on its way to becoming one of the largest, most costly relief efforts ever. And it's looking like private donors -- rather than government sources -- will pay most of these costs. Aid experts advise that to make the most of donations, givers should take time to learn more about where best to steer their money, on what it will be spent, and how long the recovery will take.
Even though the cost of recovery remains largely unknown, early commitments of official aid are coming up short. Estimates of the cost to prevent further deaths from disease and famine in the near term, together with preliminary forecasts of the long-term cost to rebuild damaged areas in the 12-country area, run into the "many billions" of dollars, according to Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s senior relief official.
Yet official sources in the West have been slow to recognize the scale of the need. The U.S., for example, wound up pledging $35 million, but only after being accused of stinginess for its initial $15 million commitment. Britain has topped even that figure, with a $96 million pledge. Stirred by the scale of the disaster, as well as by public pressure, officials are likely to continue cranking up their commitments in the near term.
TIMELINE OF NEED. Even so, private charitable donations will fill the gap between official aid and the final cost. This makes it all the more essential that donors do their homework before signing any checks. "The American people and public are wonderful in terms of generosity, particularly in times of disaster," says Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector, a coalition of more than 600 charities. But she warns that Americans' tendency to give instantly -- even to charities they haven't heard of -- can lead to problems.
To help guide the giving, Aviv suggests that donors consider the timeline of need. "The expectation is that money flows, problems get solved, and we turn to the next issue," she says. But the fact is that while many millions are needed to cover immediate costs, the cost of reconstruction will be even more staggering and may take years. Too much cash flowing into short-term relief efforts can be a problem if it exceeds charities' abilities to use the aid or if it displaces funds needed for the longer-term rebuilding efforts.
"You hear that X number of people have been killed, but the flip side of that is that Y number of people have survived," says United Way International President and CEO Christine James Brown. "What we're really going to be dealing with over the next 20 years is the people who survived and what they'll need."
The most important question to ask before writing a check -- or clicking "submit" -- is what kind of help is best needed for people on the ground, says Jacki Flowers, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross. The Web has some useful resources that can be a big help in answering questions such as:
Where -- and what -- to give? Knowing what your money will do and where it will go is the first step. Not every charity plans to disperse aid to all of the affected countries. Most are focusing on Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where the vast majority of the causalities are located. Larger charities, such as UNICEF, plan to channel aid across the whole region. Other, often smaller charities -- and especially those with a religious mandate -- are focusing their efforts on specific communities. Donors might also want to consider contributing to an area of special interest, be it children, housing, or public health.
To help understand more about where your money will go and how it will be spent, NetworkForGood.org offers a simple search function that can help narrow the list of options. For recent news and specifics about what particular charities are doing in the tsunami-affected region, see InterAction's site. An alliance of charities, InterAction continually updates this list as news from field officers comes in.
What about noncash gifts? It's easy to feel like writing a check just isn't enough. Indeed, given how many homes have bags of cast-off clothes, disused toys, and even unopened medical supplies on hand, it seems to make sense to send this sort of material directly. Experts advise that donors resist this urge, though.
Donations of unsolicited items can be difficult for charities to store and process. Plus, given the vast distance between the U.S. and the Indian Ocean region, the cost to ship such material can far outweigh its value. Donating money to organizations that have relationships with local groups in the affected countries and can best determine how needs should be met is the best way to go.
"Needs are different in different countries. In one place they may need temporary latrines, while in another they need potable water," says Independent Sector's Aviv.
So cash is king, whether it's a credit-card payment via a charity Web site or Amazon.com or cash in an envelope sent directly to CARE. Cash lets the relief agencies purchase precisely what they need as it's required. Plus, cash can be transferred from here to there electronically, whereas goods must be sorted and shipped at considerable expense. And cash spent in the affected area helps to revitalize economic activity.
There are some key exceptions. Charities are most likely to accept large-scale, bulk donations of certain goods -- such as mosquito netting, medicines, or tents. Some even post notices of needed material on their Web sites. At the Center for International Disaster Information's Web site, donors can fill out a form to list goods or technical services they have to offer.
The CIDI will add these details to a database that charities can search to meet their needs. And InterAction maintains a list of member charities that are willing to accept material donations.
Can I volunteer? Don't hop a plane just yet. Experts agree that no matter how good their intentions, unattached volunteers will only add to the chaos. And for those with no prior experience, the opportunities to volunteer officially with aid agencies are very limited.
"Any responsible agency will first and foremost use its most seasoned personnel," says Carol Etherington, assistant professor of nursing at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the USA Board of Doctors Without Borders. The best way to help is to train as a volunteer during nonemergency times, she adds. "Becoming a seasoned volunteer puts you in a place to make a huge difference when the urgency is there."
Is my charity legit? Sadly, examples abound of fly-by-night operators that profit from tragedies by setting up legitimate looking charities, pocketing the money, and disappearing. And the Web -- along with the proliferation of charity-themed spam e-mails -- make such scams all the easier to pull off.
If you suspect a charity may not be the real deal, check it out. Simply asking questions is a good test. A phone call can help confirm the charity's history, goals, nonprofit status, and give you an indication of how your money will be used. "We know those abuses are going to happen," says Aviv. "The most important thing is that folks go to Web sites that are tried and true -- organizations that are well-known, with longstanding experience."
As an additional, more independent check, try GuideStar.org, which offers a number of useful tools for checking out your charity. GuideStar includes listings of those groups that have registered with and met the guidelines of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service's terms for a nonprofit charity. And of course, keep records of any charitable donation you make, particularly for those made online. By Adam Aston and Lauren Gard in New York