On some issues, Americans are still divided weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington that killed some 5,500 people. The best way to defeat terrorism is hotly debated. On other issues, we're united: We've opened our wallets wide since September 11. On the Internet alone, people have donated more than $100 million. They are so eager to give that watchdog groups have warned of e-mail scams begging donations for nonexistent charities. And so, the question: How do you give in a way that's as smart as it is compassionate?
A handful of Web sites stand ready to help. Some nonprofit sites solicited contributions and volunteer labor for prescreened charities even before the disaster. They can connect you both to charities born since the disaster and to groups serving long-standing needs. Other sites came along after September 11 and focus on directing money to relief groups in New York and in Washington. All will help you channel your dough to places where it will do the good you intend.
The best of the bunch is Helping.org, which achieves a rare twofer: It gives you the most information and the most opportunities to help. Run by the AOL Time Warner Foundation, the site offers detailed reports on the programs and spending of 700,000 nonprofit organizations. The reports follow the money that flows into these charities, using Internal Revenue Service filings. You can tell which charity will spend your money on programs and which will blow too much on fund-raising and administration. Well-run groups like the American Red Cross spend less than 10% on operations, for instance. On each charity's report is a button that links you to a simple donation form. Helping.org takes no commission on the donations.
Another nifty Helping.org feature is a search engine that lets you find volunteer opportunities in your community. I found more than 1,100 volunteers-needed listings within 20 miles of my home--everything from pro bono legal services to coaching girls' track. After the World Trade Center catastrophe, it could tell you where to go to help at nearby hospitals. In most U.S. cities, I found about 800 listings.
Unlike Helping.org, Give.org will name nonprofits that meet their guidelines and those that either don't or won't provide necessary information for evaluation. But it has reports on far fewer individual charities--only about 200--and its information is sometimes dated. Some people will think Give.org's pie-chart explanations of where donations go are easier to follow than Helping.org's rows of numbers.
Beyond these two sites, for-profit Web companies deserve some credit for helping to raise money. AOL (AOL ), Microsoft (MSFT ), Yahoo! (YHOO ), Cisco Systems (CSCO ), Amazon (AMZN ), and eBay (EBAY ) teamed up to build libertyunites.org, which connects to about 30 charities in New York and Washington.
Is the Web really a community? The idea took a beating when the dot-coms crashed to earth. But the response to the attacks shows the Net can be a powerful force for social good. Let's make the most of it.