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Crowdfunding is playing a larger role in disaster relief

Volunteers get a briefing on Monday at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, where the American Red Cross is housing victims of Hurricane Harvey. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

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In the aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey, contributions pour in to well-known relief agencies like the American Red Cross and Catholic Charities. But crowdfunding is also playing a growing role. Campaigns are proliferating on sites like GoFundMe and YouCaring. Some seek money to help individual families whose homes flooded. Others support causes like pet rescue or hot meals. 

Maggie Bergen of Dallas, Georgia, is seeking money for the Houston public schools, where her sister works.

“We just wanted to find a way to help, and this seemed to be the best way to do it,” she said.

At last check, the campaign had raised almost $5,000, which will benefit the Houston Independent School District Foundation.

“Crowdfunding often allows people the chance to see an individual, see a picture, feel like they’re making a direct impact, whereas donating through an organization can feel a little bit more distant,” said Ashley Post, senior development manager at Charity Navigator, which rates charities on their financial health, accountability and transparency.

On average, people tend to give more when they support projects benefiting individuals, said Evan Paul, with the charity tracker Guidestar.

“It’s unclear if that’s at the expense of larger, more established organizations like the Red Cross,” he said. “Hopefully, the pie overall is getting larger and we’re seeing more charitable support for disaster recovery overall.”

Crowdfunding campaigns come with some risk, said Una Osili with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.

“One advantage of giving to an established nonprofit is that there’s a way of verifying whether this is indeed an established organization,” she said. 

Of course, even the Red Cross has come under fire for its handling of disasters in Haiti and New Orleans. Osili recommends that donors find out as much information as they can before making a donation to any campaign.

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