Americans are not slow when it comes to opening their wallets in a disaster. That we know from the Asian tsunami — where private aid topped $1 billion, according to Bennett Weiner of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance. When it comes to giving to victims of Hurricane Katrina, however, people are still trying to assess the situation — figure out where the damage is. That's understandable. Every day we're still getting conflicting reports about the needs of the survivors. Taking a little time is not a bad thing. It will help them make wise giving decisions as well.
Specifically what should you keep in mind?
Give to established organizations
If you want to make a gift, make it to an organization that has the infrastructure in place to carry it out — an organization like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army. They're not the only two, of course. Today, the BBB's charity Web site www.give.org is posting a list of charities that are focused on hurricane relief. Get specific, if you want
If you'd rather give to an organization that works on one specific part of hurricane relief, you can find that organization with the help of the search engine at www.guidestar.org. Type in the word "hurricane" and what you're looking to accomplish — whether it's helping with pets that have lost their homes or with water treatment problems — and appropriate charities will pop up.
Cash donations are the most helpful, all experts say. Don't leave your home and head to the area to try to volunteer unless you're dispatched by a relief organization. You'll only get in the way. Likewise, don't gather old clothes or other belongings for the victims and send them to Louisiana and Mississippi. They'll clog the system for items that really do need to get through.
Check out an organization before you give
Visit the Web site of the charity making a donation to see what kind of relief it's providing (it should specify on the home page). Then check sites like Give.org and GuideStar.org to make sure that at least 70 percent of the money the charity collects goes to solving the problem (the so-called "program ratio") rather than running the office.
Go to them, don't give if they come to you
If you want to make a contribution over the phone, call the charity yourself. Don't give your credit card number out if a charity calls you. Likewise, if you want to make a donation on the Web, surf to the site yourself. DO NOT — under any circumstances — follow a link in an e-mail soliciting contributions. This is how phishing scams work. You may be taken to a Web page that looks like it belongs to a reputable charity, but it may be a fraud.
Watch items that are being sold for charity relief
Some of these cause-marketing efforts are legit. Others are not. But in most cases, less than 10 percent of the purchase price you spend goes toward solving the problem. You're better off — if you really want to help — simply making a direct donation.
Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at Money magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2005. For more information, go to her Web site, .