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How to Make Your Haiti Donations Count

How to Make Your Haiti Donations Count

(Photo By Rodrigo Abd, AP/Courtesy Yellowbrix)

By Sandra Block, USA TODAY

February 02, 2010

The humanitarian crisis in Haiti has compelled millions of people to pick up their phones. Not because they want to talk about it, but because they want to help. In the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake, pictures of hollow-eyed children outside leveled homes triggered an unprecedented number of text-messaged donations from people who were moved to help. Most of the donations were small — typically $10 — but millions of small contributions add up. The Red Cross says its campaign encouraging text-messaged donations has generated more than $30 million.

But charity experts say there are downsides to cellphone philanthropy.

“It’s getting so easy, you soon will be able to give by simply blinking your eyes,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group. “The problem is it can also lead to impulsive giving, which is not good because you can give to an inefficient or ineffective charity.”

If you want to text-message your donations, Borochoff says, give to a charity you’ve already vetted. You should also be aware of fees and administrative costs. In response to the crisis in Haiti, the major wireless companies have agreed to waive their standard text-messaging fees.

Text-messaged donations may also take longer to get to the charity.

When you text a contribution, the amount is added to your phone bill. It can take up to 90 days for your provider to send the money to the charity, because providers usually wait until customers have paid their bills before sending the donation. But in response to the urgent need in Haiti, major wireless carriers have agreed to accelerate donations for earthquake relief.

Still, the most efficient way to give is online, says Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator. Most major charities allow you to make credit card donations directly through their websites, he says. “It’s the fastest way (to give) and the least expensive for the charities to process.”

Other giving tips:

•Give to charities that already have experience in Haiti. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a third of the organizations that came to help victims in Thailand were new charities, says Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a former Peace Corps volunteer who helped the Thailand government coordinate tsunami aid. Many of the groups were well-meaning but ineffective, she says.

There are many worthwhile organizations with a good track record in Haiti, Borochoff says, so there’s no reason to take a risk with an unknown organization.

•Don’t earmark donations. After the 2004 tsunami, Thailand received so much money to build orphanages that the government built more than it needed, Schimmelpfennig says. Some desperate parents gave up their children in order to get assistance. Pressure from donors to get victims out of tents quickly also led some charities to build substandard homes that eventually had to be replaced, she says.

Once you’ve selected a worthwhile charity, don’t put restrictions on your donations, Berger says. “If you trust them and they’ve got a good track record, give them the freedom to use their judgment to handle the disaster.”

•Take advantage of new tax rules. Legislation signed by President Obama on Jan. 22 allows taxpayers who contribute to Haiti earthquake relief to claim the deductions on their 2009 tax return. Ordinarily, you’re required to deduct charitable contributions in the year they’re made.

The provision is limited to cash contributions made between Jan. 11 and March 1, 2010.

If you think the deduction will be more valuable this year, then you can claim it when you file your 2010 tax return. As is the case with all charitable contributions, you must itemize to claim the deduction.

You’re required to keep a record of charitable contributions that you deduct. If you donated by text message, the IRS says, your telephone bill will meet that requirement, as long as it shows the name of the organization that received your contribution, the date of the donation, and the amount. For other types of contributions, keep a bank record, such as a canceled check or a receipt from the charity.

•Make a long-term commitment to give. Look for organizations that will remain in Haiti after the disaster-relief efforts have ended and continue to support them, Berger says.

“The experts are saying it’s going to be 10 years at a minimum before Haiti is going to be back to where it was,” he says, “and it wasn’t in great shape to begin with.”

Sandra Block covers personal finance for USA TODAY. Her Your Money column appears Tuesdays. Click here for an index of Your Money columns. E-mail her at: sblock@usatoday.com. Follow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandyblock

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