Disaster Relief: How To Make Your Donation Count

In the week since a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan, Americans and others around the world have been opening their wallets to help.

Donations have come from the likes of Lady Gaga, Wall Street bankers, major corporations and small individual donors.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that Americans have donated more than $87 million for relief efforts so far.

Chronicle editor Stacy Palmer says that's just a fraction of what Americans gave in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina and last year's earthquake in Haiti.

"It's actually a good thing people are giving less and holding back," Palmer says. "That's exactly what disaster experts say is important to do — is to wait and see what the needs are before rushing to give."

The Japanese have thus far discouraged many outside relief efforts.

"What happens after disasters often is that everybody wants to get involved, wants to help," Palmer says. "Lots of people coming in with lots of donated goods often, instead of helping, gets in the way of really efficient disaster recovery."

So what happens to the money already donated to Japan that can't be spent there?

"If you gave to a general fund, then they will just use it for other disasters or other projects," says Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who writes the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough.

But, she says, if money is given to a charity that is specifically earmarked for Japan, that's where the charity has to spend it.

Drawing on her own experiences as a relief worker in Asia, she says sometimes poorly conceived projects get funded.

"Earmarking to anything, really, can force money to be spent in a way that is not actually needed — it's not going to do the most good," Schimmelpfennig says.

Her advice to those inspired to donate now: Give the money to organizations that are helping to prepare for future disasters. Or, make a contribution to the general fund of a charity of your choice.

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