Giving to Boston's victims: How to choose a charity

What happens when someone decides to donate their inheritance?

Between the bombing in Boston and the deadly explosion in Texas there are hundreds of Americans still in the hospital, many of them facing large hospital and rehab costs. After tragedies like these, home-grown charities usually pop up immediately to help with expenses. Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, a website which ranks philanthropic organizations based on performance, joins us to talk about donating.

"We're seeing a variety of charities popping up, none of them that have any track record that we know of. For example, there's a group in Boston called TUGG that's raising funds. Of course, in the case of Boston -- as was the case in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy -- the governor has organized a fund," says Berger.

Berger says people have given a lot -- millions of dollars have already been raised. But how do you choose which charity to give to?

"A lot of it has to do with risk and expectations. The faster you want to see your money move, the higher the risk. If you're willing to wait a while, you lower your risk substantially, but the concern is victims and family need support right away. So it's a trade off. So there's no easy answer," says Berger. "Our general recommendation is to go slow because then you know for certain it's a reputable organization with a track record or even a new organization like one organized by the governor and the mayor that has the gravitas that eventually the money will get there. That's really the key: the faster you go, the higher the likelihood you're going to get ripped off."


If you're looking for a charity to help victims in the Boston bombing, Charity Navigator has these suggestions:

Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund

  • The four time 4-star Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund has created the Boston Marathon Relief Fund. Money raised will support the charity's efforts to send "staff, volunteers, and amputees wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan to Boston, to provide encouragement, guidance and immediate financial support to victims and their families."
  • To contribute to this effort, they're instructing donors to visit the America's Fund website (a program of the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund) and designate their donation to the Boston Marathon Relief Fund (by scrolling down to reads: "Is this donation in support of an event, campaign, or fundraiser?" checking "yes" and selecting Boston Marathon Relief Fund from the drop-down menu.)

TUGG

  •  This fundraising appeal promises that “all proceeds will be donated completely to programs working with victims of the attacks. We are consulting with the Mayor's office, the hospitals that cared for the patients, and other responder teams to assess the most pertinent needs and to deliver funding directly to those impacted”
  • TUGG is a 501 c 3 public charity, but it is too small yet for Charity Navigator to rate.
  • In 2011, TUGG spent $84,000 on fundraising and nothing on administrative fees or program fees (this is the category that charities show their spending on their charitable mission).

The One Fund

  • This fundraising effort was established on April 16th by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Tom Menino “to help the people most affected by the tragic events that occurred in Boston on April 15, 2013.”
  • Kenneth Feinberg, who has overseen funds for victims of 9/11, the BP oil spill and mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and at Virginia Tech, will oversee The One Fund.
  • The group has applied for nonprofit status, but does not yet have it.  The notice about the fund’s creation does properly note that “although the Fund cannot guarantee that the IRS will make a determination that the organization qualifies as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity, if approval is received within the expected time frame, the determination will be retroactive to the date of the Fund’s formation.”
  • We’ve seen similar efforts after other disasters, including Superstorm Sandy in which the Governor of New Jersey and his wife started a fund. At the time, it too did not have nonprofit status (it does now).

Plus, here are tips to remember before you donate:

  • Collectively, donors have the power to hold these funds accountable for distributing the funds to the victims in a timely manner. That’s not to say we don’t want the funds to take enough time to ensure the money is going to real victims in need, but we also don’t want years to pass before the funds are released.
  • Be suspicious of online appeals, especially in light of the fact that hundreds of new website URLs have popped up since the bombing that use keywords related to the tragedy.
  • Seems silly to have to say, but remember, a victim isn't going to know your personal email address to send you a direct appeal for help. This happens after every tragedy and sadly, some people, giving from their heart, don’t stop to think before they click on an email and give their personal financial information.
  • You may also want to consider other ways to help such as donating blood, signing up to get trained as a disaster volunteer, or volunteer in your time or donating to a charity in your local communit.

What about giving to home-grown charities -- people who have friends or family members who are victims and start charities on Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding platforms?

"The general rule of thumb there is some of them are wonderful and some of them are terrible. So if you live in the local area and you can eyeball the organization yourself, then by all means go for those local home-grown organizations if you really feel they're going to do some good work right away," says Berger. "But if you're in another state and you have to make an assessment from a distance, you run a risk that the charities are not that well vetted, that they are a scam."

As for people who have the urge to set up a charity for victims of a tragedy, Berger says the first step you should take is look around and see if there are other people or organizations who have the same goals as yours. The U.S. has more charities than anywhere else in the world. So Berger says you should try to hook your efforts up with other people -- which will help you get expertise and traction that you might not otherwise have.

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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