THE BLOG
11/16/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Picking the Best Charity for Typhoon Haiyan Relief

We have all seen the horrific pictures and news stories from the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, and many of us want to help. Experts are offering advice on how to do this most effectively, though the recommendations vary and sometimes even conflict. To make sense of it all, I've compiled a summary of the various pieces of advice so that thoughtful donors have a more complete picture of the landscape before making the decision of how best to help.

1. Give cash rather than sending stuff or traveling to the disaster area to volunteer. Center for Disaster Philanthropy president Bob Ottenhoff gave this advice in an interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy: "What we don't encourage is sending volunteers. There's been too many untrained, unorganized volunteers coming to disaster areas and that just adds a huge burden to the local relief workers and don't send goods and products, unless they've made some arrangement or determine that these are goods that are actually needed." This practical advice deserves two thumbs up.

2. Recommend a menu of options of nonprofits working on relief efforts. An approach commonly suggested by the media is to simply list a bunch of well-known nonprofits that are working on relief efforts, and just tell donors to pick one. Examples of these lists can be found on CNN, the New York Times, and The Huffington Post. They often describe what each organization does, but provide little guidance on which ones are most effective. Donors who pick from these lists will probably get an above-average organization. The problem is that savvy donors are looking for guidance on the best-of-the-best charities with the most effective operations. Donors don't need a menu -- we need a "Consumer Reports" for charities. (And many people are surprised to know that the big charity rating agencies are little help because their scores are not driven by the quality of a charity's work, but based on other factors like their accounting statements and legal structures.) This advice is worth one thumb up; it is safe and uncontroversial but not as helpful as more specific advice.

3. Give to proven, time-tested health activities instead of disaster relief. This contrarian recommendation comes from a very reputable source: the Disease Control Priorities Project (DCPP), which is jointly organized by several groups including the World Bank, World Health Organization and Gates Foundation. This advice takes courage, resisting the popular pressure to donate to disaster relief, and is based on a sound foundation of cost-benefit analysis: "The highly emotional and sensationalized climate of disaster response has long prevented the adoption of a cost effectiveness approach in decision making . . . perceptions and visibility tend to prevail over facts and analysis, resulting in a lack of evidence-based studies on costs and benefits. . . . Emergency health interventions are more costly and less effective than time-tested health activities. Improvisation and rush inevitably come with a high price." Two thumbs up for a remarkably frank assessment to help donors do as much good as possible in the long term.

4. Give without strings attached. The charity evaluator GiveWell recommends making unrestricted donations, allowing the recipient nonprofit to use the donation where it is needed most, rather than earmarking it for disaster relief efforts. GiveWell's blog post on Typhoon Haiyan relief advises this: "Allow your funds to be used where most needed -- even if that means they're not used during this disaster. Disasters attract a great deal of media attention and money, yet in many cases the biggest challenge is logistics. The result can be that money isn't the limiting factor in the immediate relief effort. We found evidence of this both for the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2011 Japan tsunami." Unrestricted donations empower the nonprofits closest to the issues to decide how to spend your money. Two thumbs up: if you trust a nonprofit enough to give it your money, you should also trust it to know how to spend it.

5. Give with strings attached. In direct conflict with GiveWell's advice, Charity Navigator gives this recommendation: "Designate your investment. Worried that your donation will go towards the charity's general operating fund or saved for a future crisis? This is a very understandable concern. By designating your gift, you'll ensure that your donation will be used as you intended." It is certainly true that earmarking your gift will ensure it is used for that purpose, but it raises an important question about how much flexibility donors should give charities. I give Charity Navigator one thumb down for its advice; it is technically accurate, but amounts to tying one hand behind the charity's back in its quest to solve the problems of the world.

As for me, I've seen enough to convince me that disaster relief is not the way to get the most bang-for-the-buck with my charitable giving. Events like Typhoon Haiyan remind me how fortunate I am and that I should donate to the charities that I believe are best at helping others. This is important not just during a particular disaster, but in everyday life.