The Best Ways to Donate to Hurricane Victims

The Best Ways to Donate to Hurricane Victims
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With Hurricanes Harvey and Irma causing devastating destruction, many of us have been considering how to best help the relief efforts. While your heart is definitely in the right place, your money will go a lot further if you make sure it's given to organizations that actually spend it to help the cause.

Below we walk you through choosing an organization to donate, deciding what to donate, and how you can claim tax deductions for being a good samaritan.

Find the right place to donate (and don't get scammed).

pelican

If you care about protecting wildlife, make sure you're donating charity that actually serves that cause .

Let's say you want to make a charitable donation, but you never have before. Where do you start? First, you should think about the issues that you're truly passionate about. Maybe you love animals, or want to assist refugees, or maybe you want to save the environment or help cure a deadly disease--whatever it is, make sure it's a cause that you care deeply about. And then do your research.

This is a very important step that a lot of well-meaning people miss, and sadly, this means a lot of money that could have actually made a difference ends up stuffing the pockets of corrupt charity founders. How? Consider the case of the Cancer Fund of America. After being forced out of the American Cancer Society for using donations to fund his extravagant lifestyle, James Reynolds founded a new charity, which he called the Cancer Fund of America. In May of this year, the Federal Trade Commission charged the Cancer Fund of America, along with three other charities also owned by Reynolds, with stealing more than $187 million dollars from unsuspecting donors who thought they were giving money to help fund cancer research. From the FTC press release:

"The defendants told donors their money would help cancer patients, including children and women suffering from breast cancer, but the overwhelming majority of donations benefited only the perpetrators, their families and friends, and fundraisers. This is one of the largest actions brought to date by enforcers against charity fraud."

While this is an extreme case, there are unfortunately a lot of big-name charities out there that give only a fraction of the donations they receive to the cause they claim to champion. So before you donate, do your research. Sites like Charity Navigator, CharityWatch, GuideStar and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance rate charities on things like how their donations are being used, how much the charity leaders are making, and how well they protect donor privacy.

For hurricane relief, please consider the following per CharityNavigator.org:

Hurricane Harvey
Houston Humane Society
Houston Food Bank
Food Bank of Corpus Christi

Hurricane Irma
GlobalGiving's Hurricane Irma Relief Fund
Convoy of Hope

For other contributions, Consumer Reports put together this chart based on 2014 ratings from these watchdogs, and I'm including it here because it's a good educational jumping off point for new donors:

Cause High-rated Low-rated
Animal welfare PetSmart Charities, Phoenix Red Rover, Sacramento SPCA International, New York Tiger Missing Link Foundation, Tyler, Texas
Blind and visually impaired Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, Smithtown, N.Y. Foundation Fighting Blindness, Columbia, Md. Heritage for the Blind, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Cancer Cancer Research Institute, New York The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, Norwalk, Conn. American Breast Cancer Foundation, Baltimore Cancer Survivors’ Fund, Missouri City, Texas
Child protection Children’s Defense Fund, Washington, D.C.Prevent Child Abuse America, Chicago The Committee for Missing Children, Lawrenceville, Ga. Find the Children, Santa Monica, Calif.
Environment Earthworks, Washington, D.C.Environmental Defense Fund, New York None
Health Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research,
New York Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America, New York
Defeat Diabetes Foundation, Madeira Beach, Fla. Childhood Leukemia Foundation, Brick, N.J.
Human services American Red Cross, Washington, D.C. Catholic Charities USA, Alexandria, Va. Shiloh International Ministries, La Verne, Calif. Children’s Charity Fund, Sarasota, Fla.
International reliefand development Grameen Foundation USA, Washington, D.C. Lutheran World Relief, Baltimore The Aidmatrix Foundation, Irving, Texas Children’s Lifeline, Clay City, Ky.
Mental healthand disabilities Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, New York American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, New York Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation, Schererville, Ind. National Caregiving Foundation, Alexandria, Va.
Police and firefighter support New York City Police Foundation, New York FDNY Foundation, Brooklyn, N.Y. Disabled Police Officers Counseling Center, Niceville, Fla. Firefighters Charitable Foundation, Farmingdale, N.Y.
Veterans Homes for Our Troops, Taunton, Mass. Operation Homefront, San Antonio National Veterans Services Fund, Darien, Conn. National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

What about GoFundMe?

As much as we hate to discourage giving, please me wary of GoFundMe fundraisers. While we support giving to people in need, when you're looking to help a relief cause, this is not the best choice. Unless you know the recipient personally, or were directed to a GoFundMe page of a non-profit directly from their website, chances are it may not be as trustworthy as other donation organizations.

As The Washington Post reported, a family of Hurricane Harvey survivors did set up a fundraising page to get donations from friends and family, but within days of being featured on the news, there had been multiple fake accounts for his family set up, making it hard to identify the real fundraising page for the family. As mentioned above, the FTC (ftc.gov) suggests checking multiple websites that report on the legitimacy of charitable organizations. Check those first and always do your research before donating to a GoFundMe page.

Pick what you want to donate.

canned food

Soup kitchens and shelters are often in need of non-perishable food items.

There are more ways to give to a cause than just writing a check. If you're a little short on cash but still want to make a difference, consider another kind of donation: a charitable gift-in-kind.

The FTC defines gifts-in-kind as: "any non-cash donation from individuals and businesses to a charity. Common examples are food, clothing, prescription drugs, equipment and medical supplies."

You can donate food to a shelter or food pantry, donate old electronics to a battered women's shelter, or donate gently-used professional clothing to a program like Dress for Success, which helps disadvantaged women dress professionally for job interviews.

You can also donate your time: volunteer at a soup kitchen, help out at your local animal shelter, or spend a few hours a week tutoring kids at the library. Whatever the cause, doing the work yourself is the best way to know whether your contribution really made a difference.

Donate the right way (and keep your receipts!).

Receipt

Make sure you keep a detailed record of everything you donate.

First and foremost, if you're going to donate to charity, make sure there's a verifiable record of your donation. That means you should probably avoid donating in cold, hard cash, and instead stick with writing a check or using a credit card. In fact, many credit card companies offer the ability to donate to various charities using points or miles, and some will offer a spending bonus when you use their card to charge a charitable donation. For example, the Barclaycard Ring MasterCard offers cardholders the ability to turn points into donations, and Bank of America will donate 0.08 percent of all purchases made with the Susan G. Komen Credit Card to the organization, as well as $3 for every new card member and annual renewal.

Many companies offer donation matching as well, so if yours does and you want to boost your financial impact on the cause of your choice, donate through work instead of individually.

If you find yourself donating a few bucks to whatever charity is being advertised during checkout at Walgreens, Walmart, PetSmart or your local grocery store, remember to save those receipts! It might not seem like you're giving a lot, but if you're mindlessly forking over $5 every time you hit the supermarket, your donations can really add up. If you keep the receipts, then when April rolls around you can...

Reap the tax deductions!

taxes calculator

Include your charitable donations on your taxes and you could see some nice tax breaks!

Giving to charity can help make the world a better place, and as an added bonus, there are also a number of great tax benefits in place for those who donate.

Charity Navigator has a pretty good plain-English summation of the benefits of donating to charity, which I've summarized below:

If you itemize your deductions, you may be entitled to a charitable contribution deduction. From Charity Navigator:  "If the gifts are deductible, the actual cost of the donation is reduced by your tax savings. For example, if you are in the 33% tax bracket, the actual cost of a $100 donation is only $67 ($100 less the $33 tax savings). As your income tax bracket increases, the real cost of your charitable gift decreases, making contributions more attractive for those in higher brackets. The actual cost to a person in the lowest bracket, 15%, for a $100 contribution is $85. For a person in the highest bracket, 35%, the actual cost is only $65. Not only can the wealthy afford to give more, but they receive a larger reward for giving."

You can deduct a contribution to a qualified charity only during the year in which it's paid. For checks, this means the date it went in the mail, and for credit card payments, it means the date it's charged, not the date you paid your credit card bill.

The limits to how much you can deduct are pretty astronomical for normal people. You don't need to worry about deduction limits unless you're contributing more than 20 percent of your adjusted gross income to charity.

Be aware of the rules that are in place for non-cash charitable contributions. You can deduct the market value of any non-cash items you donate to charity, but they need to be in good condition. "If you bring $1,000 in clothes or furniture to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, make sure that you get a receipt. Never throw such contributions into a bin where no receipt is available. If you are in the 25% bracket, that receipt may be worth $250 in tax savings to you. And remember that the IRS requires a qualified appraisal to be submitted with your tax return if you donate any single clothing or household item that is not in good used condition or better, and for which you deducted more than $500."

You can't deduct a separate contribution of more than $250 unless you have documentation. So save those receipts! Save them I say!

Keep in mind that while MOST charity donations are tax deductible, if you're planning on deducting donations on your taxes, you should double (and triple) check to make sure the organization you're planning on giving to is actually deductible. Check the IRS guidelines on charitable contribution deductions before you donate if this is something that's important to you.

Do you or your family make annual charitable donations? Let us know about your favorite cause in the comments!