Rather than another image of disaster, here is a Japanese wooden amulet that symbolizes safety. May you be safe, Japan. You are in our hearts.

I’ve turned off my television. I realized it’s not doing me or anyone good to watch the chaos from the quake and wall of water that swallowed villages and farmlands, families whole.

With the earthquake and tsunami in Japan mere days behind us and the scale of the devastation still unknown, you—like me—may be feeling the urgency to do something, anything, to help. Before you pledge your next grant or make a contribution via text message, consider these tips for donating in times of disaster first.

1) Wait before you donate. When it comes to giving in times of disaster, an immediate, emotional response is not always best. According to the Council on Foundations’ 2007 report, “Disaster Grantmaking: A Practical Guide for Foundations and Corporations,” grantmakers can do well by waiting a while to see what is needed after the relief agencies move on. Consider splitting the donation up, especially when giving larger amounts, to allot some for immediate relief and some for long-term recovery efforts.

2) Do your research. There are hundreds of organizations that respond to disasters. Do some homework before sending your donation. According to Saundra Schimmelpfennig on her blog, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, find organizations that have experience and a longstanding presence in the country where the disaster occurred, as they will likely be on the ground and best understand what is needed. You can find lists of organizations involved in the recovery efforts at:

3) Give to reputable organizations. It’s inevitable that a host of charities pop up whenever a disaster hits. Many of them will have the best intentions, but a few won’t. Be sure to donate to reputable organizations only—those with the track record and experience in the country in need. Some examples include the Red Cross, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Global Giving, Mercy Corps, and The Salvation Army. Check out Network for Good for a list of many more.

4) Donate cash, not clothes or goods. Although your heart may be in the right place, donating clothes, goods, or food can actually hurt, not help, in a disaster. These packages often arrive far too late, are inappropriate, and can clog local ports, preventing critical items from getting through. Money is what’s needed the most.

5) Give unrestricted funds. Don’t limit your donation to certain items or areas. Charities need as much flexibility as possible as a disaster unfolds. If you’re a grantmaker, consider offering emergency funds or general operating support (as appropriate within your guidelines) to some of the reputable aid organizations in need of support.

6) Stay at home. You may think the most humanitarian thing you can do is get on a plane and show up to the disaster scene. Not so. Aid organizations only call on volunteers with specific skills and those trained in disaster response, and surprisingly few volunteers are actually needed. If you have the urge to volunteer, do so where you can really make a difference: in your own neighborhood. Help your community prepare for disaster through a local Community Emergency Response Team.


While tens of thousands residents of coastal villages still remain unaccounted for, and hundreds of thousands are left without water, heat or electricity, I wonder: by what strange twist does this happen to Japan and not San Francisco? Why was it them this time around, and not me?

The truth is, although I sit from the safety and warmth of my home with family members and loved ones in tact, it is happening to me. Just as it’s happening to  you, and every one of us. We are, at every moment, at the whim of nature and our mostly gentle giant Earth, and we can’t help but feel the shaking across the globe. And when thousands of people are wiped off the planet within a span of 15 minutes, we can’t help but feel the loss of that life in our bones.

If nothing else, this is what connects us. Sometimes it takes a tragedy on the largest scale to reminds us of that.

If you have other ideas on ways to help or what you’re personally doing in the wake of this disaster, please share them in the comments below. I’d like to hear from you.

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