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COVID-19: The Struggle & the Aftermath

   Apr 15, 2020

A Message from CharityWatch’s Executive Director, Laurie Styron 

In times of tragedy we feel a deep need to make sense of an often chaotic world and to find order within it by acting upon it in some way. Donating to charity can help us fill this need by making us feel like we are part of the solution. Sending financial aid to the victims of a tragedy, or to a charity helping those victims, appeases our emotional discomfort while also reinforcing our hope that, were the roles reversed, compassionate people would come to our aid in our desperate time of need.

The downside to this type of giving is that it is reactionary—impulsive. And when we are impulsive we are prone to making mistakes. We might donate to the first charity that asks. The very faith in humanity that drives much of our giving sadly puts us at risk of trusting too much. We want to believe that no one could stoop so low as to take advantage of our generosity in the wake of a tragedy. But people do.

With that said, we must take care to not fall victim to a different type of tragedythe false dilemma. It is not the case that because we cannot trust everyone we should not trust anyone. And it is not the case that because we should not give impulsively we should not give at all. In fact, I propose that we should consider the very act of giving more thoughtfully to be an essential part of our gift. You will accomplish more with your donation by giving $100 to a legitimate and highly efficient charity than you will by giving $1,000 to a fraudulent or highly inefficient one. But you must educate yourself on how to do it.

Over our more than 25 years of existence, CharityWatch has advised donors through national and global crises of tragic scalesthe 9/11 terrorist attacks; Hurricane Harvey, the Asian tsunami, and earthquakes in Haiti; humanitarian crises resulting from famine and war throughout the world; and too many more to count. The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge for nonprofits that find themselves fundraising for vital programs during a time when many governments and foundations are stretched to their limits, and nonprofits are competing for limited grants and other assistance to help them meet basic expenses and stay afloat. Now more than ever, it is critical that limited charitable dollars not be wasted on scams, misleading marketing schemes, or on charities that don’t keep their overhead spending within reasonable bounds. We hope this guidance will help you make more informed giving decisions as you consider how best to direct your much-needed support to deserving charities.

Visit our Hot Topic on COVID-19 for a list of highly rated charities providing assistance or conducting other programs related to coronavirus pandemic relief.

Avoid These Popular Scams & Giving Pitfalls 

  • Robocalls, letters, emails, and other pitches pressuring you for donations in the form of cash, gift cards, wire, or other payment methods that cannot be traced to the recipient: Donate by paper check or credit card instead.
  • People who use high pressure tactics to guilt you into giving on the spot without allowing time to confirm that the charity is a registered nonprofit, or time to research how efficiently your donation will be used: Pressure to quickly make a pledge is a common strategy used by scammers. Instead, give more thoughtfully by proactively researching charities working in a cause you would like to support, and give directly.
  • Giving in response to a “thank you” for a donation you never made: Scammers imply that they are trying to collect on a donation you pledged in the past, and simply “forgot” about. Don’t fall for this common trick.
  • Flooding a small number of victims with a disproportionate amount of assistance: In some instances a small handful of victims of a tragedy receive significant donations as the result of news coverage about their plights. A victim who is interviewed on TV or whose story goes viral online may be bombarded with sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, while other victims of the same tragedy are struggling for basic necessities simply because their stories were not publicized. Instead, identify charities making direct grants to individuals so they can provide a proportional level of assistance to many of those affected.
  • Giving unsolicited goods instead of cash donations: The more cautious among us may decide to donate stuff to a charity rather than cash, thinking that doing so ensures our donations will not be diverted away from helping victims. Unfortunately, donating non-cash goods to charities that didn’t specifically request them often has unintended consequences. Collecting non-cash donations from individuals, arranging for their transportation, sorting through them once they arrive at their destinations, and distributing appropriate items to the right people, almost always costs a charity more in personnel costs and time delays than if the charity had simply used cash donations to purchase the most needed items in bulk. Ask a charity if it is requesting specific items before donating non-cash goods. If not, identify a financially efficient charity and donate cash instead.
  • Sending small donations to a lot of charities: It is better to direct your donations to one or two charities than to send smaller donations to a long list of them. Even the most highly efficient charities have fundraising as well as overhead costs related to obtaining and processing your donation. By making a larger gift to a single, financially efficient charity, instead of sending $20 to 10 different charities, a smaller portion of your donation will be used to cover overhead costs.

Report Charity Scams or Suspicious Fundraising Appeals

  • Contact CharityWatch to report suspicious or misleading fundraising appeals from charities, including those purporting to conduct programs related to helping those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. While we are unable to intervene directly to resolve issues related to illegal activity, we can direct you to those governing bodies that can. This also helps us warn other donors about potential charity scams to avoid.
  • Report scams to the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.gov/complaint, or by calling 1-877-382-4357.
  • File a complaint with your state’s attorney general, secretary of state, or other governmental body responsible for regulating charities. Visit our Links page for contact information and other resources.

Identify Efficient Charities 

In addition to avoiding outright scams, it is important to identify charities that will use your contributions efficiently before donating. Don’t give to the first charity that asks. Instead, make sure a charity’s programs align with your goals and it has a track record of using donations efficiently and effectively. Visit our coronavirus Hot Topic to identify financially efficient charities to support. Contact these charities directly using the information provided to find out what specific efforts they are undertaking to address needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Also keep in mind that many charities not involved in COVID-19 relief efforts are still in need of donations due to declines in revenue resulting from unfavorable economic conditions. In addition to directing donations to charities Top-Rated by CharityWatch, consider donating to local homeless or domestic violence shelters, food banks, animal shelters, and arts organizations that serve people in your own community.

Finally, keep emotions in check when making your giving decisions. Emotions are not inherently good or bad. It is how we wield them in the world that determines whether they act as an asset or a hindrance. Allow your compassion to function as a catalyst for giving rather than an end unto itself. Then, take pause, and focus your knowledge on making good decisions about how much to give, and to which charities to direct your donations.

Tragedies are painful reminders that life is unpredictable and frequently unjust, and that terrible things can happen to good people. But they are also opportunities for us to work together to solve problems, to exercise compassion, to gain perspective, and to cultivate mindfulness about suffering in the world. It is never too late to change your giving habits, to give more generously, and to make giving thoughtfully an essential part of how you give.