Right now, millions are glued to the television sets and scanning the Internet for stories about Japan's tragedy and relief efforts. As the images of destruction mirror across the screens, many are rushing to see what they can do to help.
Horrible events like this tend to bring out the best and worst in humanity. We are reminded of how fragile life is and how we are all bound together. While many are drawn to help, unfortunately others see this as an ideal opportunity for fraud. With that in mind, I have put a few words of advice below based on a combination of my experience in development, working with charity organizations and running a fraud analytics department.
In general, it is always good to contribute to legitimate organizations, regardless of whether there is a tragedy or not. In fact, it may be better to give when there isn't a tragedy since organizations like AmeriCares, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and other major organizations have reserves of money, supplies and people that are prepared to deal with situations like Japan. Yes, the initial reaction of organizations can be chaotic and things don't always go perfectly but large organizations usually have clearly defined plans to deal with crisis management.
If you want to give money, I suggest giving to the larger organizations that have received good ratings in Charity Navigator. Spend a few minutes to research the organization before you donate to make sure the organization is well run and is aligned with your priorities and beliefs. Also, review Charity Navigator's advice for giving in support of Japan which has a good set of dos and don'ts.
Following any tragedy like this, there are invariably many people soliciting for money to support relief efforts. In general, I never donate to people soliciting money for relief efforts on the streets, any "fly by night" operation, telemarketers, e-mail solicitations or anything attached to a social networking site like Twitter or Facebook. You should use the charity organization's official website, rather than seeing what drops into your inbox or who is standing on the corner holding a bucket.
If you want to volunteer your services, remember that usually relief agencies need skills and money, not just bodies. You may consider getting training so that you might be better prepared to support during the next emergency. Do not respond to any Internet/phone solicitations for volunteering services as this is often a fishing opportunity for scam artists. As with donations, contact the organization through their official website. Volunteering is incredibly rewarding, but you want to be certain that this is a legitimate opportunity to help.
Helping others, whether it is through donations or volunteering, is one of the most rewarding activities possible. My simple advice is to do this in a way that can truly support those in need, rather than enriching those with greed.