Want to Help? Do Your Research Before You Donate

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Want to Help? Do Your Research Before You Donate
Rabbi Mendel Zarchi helped to distribute food, water and clothing in Guayanilla, P.R., after Hurricane Maria. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Do your homework.

Find an organization with a clear mission and demonstrated results.

Treat your donations like your investments and have a balanced portfolio.

Above all, follow your passion, all the way to the next emergency.

That’s the advice experts give on effective giving for disaster relief. And it’s exactly the way Dr. Craig Granowitz of Morristown, N.J., approached his decision to donate more than $10,000 to help victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Granowitz was on a business trip when the hurricane struck. He watched on television the images of devastation. The day he returned home, he got a call from John O. McManus, a lawyer who advises Dr. Granowitz on philanthropic giving through his family foundation.

“He said, ‘What are you doing about charity relief in Puerto Rico?’” said Dr. Granowitz, who is chief medical officer for a major pharmaceutical corporation. “I said, ‘Frankly, John, nothing yet.’ He said, ‘Well, get off the stick and do something!’”

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A supporter of many Orthodox Jewish causes, Dr. Granowitz said that he had not normally given to disaster relief efforts. But this time he was moved to action. He contacted a rabbi he knew in New York and was referred to Rabbi Mendel Zarchi at Chabad of Puerto Rico, the local chapter of the international Jewish advocacy and educational organization.

Dr. Granowitz managed to phone Rabbi Zarchi, who at the moment he got the call was helping to distribute portable generators to residents. Rabbi Zarchi described to Dr. Granowitz the desperate conditions on the island and how he had not been home in weeks as he worked to coordinate relief efforts. He also explained that they were serving Jewish and non-Jewish people alike, and assured him that every dollar was going directly to those in need on the island, most of which was without power, and facing critical shortages.

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“I told him, we meet the people and we put it into their hands,” Rabbi Zarchi said, referring to the food, water and other essentials his organization had distributed. “We give them sympathy, and we look them in the eye. They want to know they’re not just statistics.”

Dr. Granowitz liked what he heard from the rabbi. “I told him ‘I’m going to give you some money, see what you do with it, and then maybe give you some more,’” he said.

That approach, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, underscores one of the first rules of effective giving. “Do your research,” she said. “Our natural inclination is to say, ‘What can I do?’ and reach for our wallets. That’s the time to pause and do a few minutes of research and really make sure that the organization is doing the work you’re interested in.”

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Want to Help? Do Your Research Before You Donate
Rabbi Zarchi is the head of the Chabad of Puerto Rico. He used part of a donation from a New Jersey doctor to buy water, cans of rice and beans, and much-needed cleaning supplies to distribute to hurricane victims. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Dr. Granowitz received proof of that early the next morning: In a text sent at 2 a.m., Rabbi Zarchi informed him that he had used some of the doctor’s money to buy a pallet of water and 451 cans of rice and beans (from a local Goya factory he had worked with), as well as much-needed cleaning supplies.

He also sent and posted photos of that food being distributed to residents in a rural suburb of San Juan.

“I was impressed,” Dr. Granowitz said. “Here’s a guy working tirelessly on behalf of the Puerto Rican people. And I know the money is being directly distributed to those who need it, not going to intermediaries. He is executing on all the things you’d like to see as a donor.”

Communicating directly with donors, showing the effect their dollars have had, is more than just a way to verify that the recipients have used the money. “We’ve found that people want to meet someone with the organization, and they want to hear the stories, the so-called ‘mission moments’ which give examples of their work,” Mr. McManus said.

That kind of personal touch can be difficult for the major national emergency-relief charities to achieve. Although a top executive from the Red Cross or the Salvation Army is not likely to send you a personal text in the wee hours to explain where your money went, that does not mean your gift is not going to make a difference.

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Want to Help? Do Your Research Before You Donate
Some of the supplies distributed in Guayanilla. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

“A large national organization has been through this before,” said Shannon McCracken, chief development officer for Charity Navigator, a watchdog organization. “They know what to do. They have specially trained staff and infrastructure who show up quickly and get to work.”

Indeed, some experts recommend allocating donations to different charities, based on reach, need and interests. That is not unlike the way one might approach investments, dividing money between solid blue chips and promising but smaller companies.

In philanthropy, however, the distinction between big and national and small and local can become blurred. Case in point: Houston’s First Baptist Church, one of the city’s megachurches. The church, which has about 15,000 active members and a staff of 180, has raised more than $1.5 million after Hurricane Harvey.

“Every one of those dollars was spent on relief,” said Steven W. Murray, a spokesman for the church. “I understand people get suspicious when a church starts raising money. And I can guarantee we’re not keeping a dime.”

Moreover, the church has been actively and closely involved with on-the-ground efforts to feed, clothe and house those most directly affected by the hurricane. Mr. Murray said he recognized the kinds of choices donors faced and lauded the good work national charities had done in Houston and elsewhere. But he said: “If you want to have a direct impact, find local organizations in the impacted area. It’s a quicker channel.”

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Want to Help? Do Your Research Before You Donate
Rosa Ruiz, an employee at Tropical Fruit, preparing boxes with aid for a church with the help of Ari Zarchi, 7, Rabbi Zarchi’s son, in Guayanilla. Credit Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Whatever your particular area of interest, he added, a charity serves that need. “There are groups in Houston helping dislocated pets,” Mr. Murray said. “There’s a group helping families with special needs, because a lot of these folks lost their wheelchairs or medical equipment they need, when they were evacuated.”

Mr. McManus said the focus of his clients’ charitable giving includes organizations affiliated with the nursing profession and those that serve older people.

Regardless of how one allocates donations for Puerto Rico, Houston, Mexico City, Northern California — or wherever the next natural disaster strikes — one beneficiary who shouldn’t be overlooked: the donor.

“Giving should feel good,” Ms. McCracken said.

Giving to disaster relief in Puerto Rico felt so good that Dr. Granowitz planned to make another five-figure gift to Rabbi Zarchi’s efforts.

Dr. Granowitz said, “The speed of his action, the care on the use of the funds, the detail in our conversation and then the pictures, how could I not have a feeling of tremendous gratitude and satisfaction?”

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