As the Hawaiian island of Maui struggles to recover from the deadliest wildfire in modern U.S. history, many Americans are asking, “How can I help?”
American households tend to give $80 per year to disaster relief, according to the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, a charity organization, with about one-third of American households donating to these events.
In total, that adds up to about $3 billion per year from Americans’ pockets for both domestic and global disasters, according to Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, director of learning and partnerships at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
“It is a lot, and at the same time it’s never enough,” Gulliver-Garcia said.
The generosity shown by many in the immediate aftermath of the fire that ignited on Aug. 8 has shown “the aloha spirit is alive and well throughout Hawaii and far beyond our waters,” said Kaleialoha “Kalei” Cadinha-Pua’a, president and CEO of Cadinha & Co., a Honolulu-based registered investment advisor.
“The outpouring of love and support has been critical to help the people of Maui heal and provides much needed hope during this inexplainable time of sadness,” Cadinha-Pua’a said.
For those who are interested in helping in the recovery, experts say there are several tips to keep in mind.
1. Send money, not stuff
When it comes to donations, it may be tempting to send clothing and other items you no longer need. But that may not end up doing as much good as you hope, experts say.
“Sending stuff is causing problems in Hawaii,” Gulliver-Garcia said.
Shipping containers are clogging up Honolulu’s port, she said, and require people to go through them.
Finding the help to accomplish that task amid the disaster is difficult, Gulliver-Garcia said. Moreover, what is being sent often doesn’t meet the immediate needs.
Instead, donating money may help victims decide what they need most.
“Monetary gifts provide the most flexibility to families displaced by the wildfires,” Cadinha-Pua’a said.
By selling items you don’t need rather than donating those items, you may be able to raise funds to contribute, Gulliver-Garcia suggested.
2. Remember recovery will be long-term
Typically, about 80% of individual donations go out in the first five to six days after a disaster, according to Gulliver-Garcia. Because the Hawaii disaster is likely to stay in the news for longer, that timeline may be a bit longer, she said.
However, the recovery from such a large disaster will take years.
Other U.S. areas affected by recent disasters, including parts of Kentucky affected by flooding and areas of Texas struck by Hurricane Harvey, still need assistance, Gulliver-Garcia noted. Moreover, 18 years after Hurricane Katrina, some parts of Louisiana are still in the process of getting rebuilt, she said.
“Even next year or the year after when you’re thinking about, ‘How am I going to give out money to help with disasters?’ remember that past disasters in many ways are just as important as current disasters,” Gulliver-Garcia said.
3. Choose your charity wisely
When it comes to donating, choosing trusted, well-known charities should be a priority, Hawaii Attorney General Anne Lopez recently said in response to the tragedy.
But other local organizations are also able to provide support and are taking donations.
4. Beware of scams
Unfortunately, when big headline disasters arise, scammers may try to solicit donations.
“In moments of crisis, we all must be extra-vigilant against bad actors who try to take advantage of people’s good will,” Lopez said, in a recent statement.
If an organization is very insistent that you make a donation over the phone, it would be wise to hesitate, Gulliver-Garcia said.
Other red flags include demanding a cash or gift card donation, using false names that sound like real charities or giving no specifics on how the money will be used.
Before committing to donate, look at an organization’s website and its financial information to see how much may go toward fundraising costs versus charitable endeavors, Gulliver-Sullivan suggested.
If you’re tempted to give directly to a GoFundMe campaign, be sure to check to see that it has been verified by the platform, she said.
The website Charity Navigator can help provide more information on a charity’s activities. In addition, the IRS also offers a tool to search whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.