By Muneeb Nasir and Irshad Osman
Two devastating earthquakes hit southern and central Türkiye in the early hours of February 6, 2023, and it also affected regions of north-western Syria. This is the fourth costliest earthquake in world history. The property damages and the financial loss are estimated at USD 84.1 billion.
As news of this natural disaster spread around the world, people were moved to help in whatever way they could.
‘What can I do to support the victims?’; ‘Which charity should I donate to?’; ‘How can I make an impact at this time of greatest need?’ were questions people were asking.
In this age of social media - Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, TikTok - we were quickly bombarded with slick advertisements on these platforms, along with email blasts, from community groups, small and large charities, and non-profits with images of the devastation pulling at our heartstrings.
Emotional appeals were made at the weekly Friday Jumuah service and the donations from Muslim congregations were overwhelming. The online and offline donations are still pouring in.
Although warehouses were set up to collect in-kind donations such as winter coats, sleeping bags, tents, etc., many mosques and organizational spaces were overrun with the volume of items that came in.
However, choosing a charity to donate to during natural disasters can be overwhelming and challenging. According to Charity Intelligence Canada, disaster response is the hardest area to give to intelligently ‘as charities responding have no reports or plans on how they will respond or how much this disaster response will cost.’
What are a few key factors that individuals, mosques and organizations should consider to ensure that their donations make the greatest impact:
- Be Cautious of Scams: Unfortunately, natural disasters can also attract scammers looking to take advantage of people's goodwill. Make sure to verify the legitimacy of a charity before donating by ensuring that they are a registered Canadian charity (link) and that their primary mandate includes overseas relief work. You can check the charity's website for their CRA registration number or contact them directly to know the status. Non-profit organizations that are not registered with CRA cannot issue tax receipts for your donations.
- Research the Charity: Before donating, research the charity to ensure that they have a good reputation, are trustworthy, and have a track record of efficiently and effectively using donations to help those in need, especially in the disaster zone. Look for transparency in the charity’s financial reporting, accreditation from reputable organizations, and positive reviews from other donors. Ask the charity if they were working in Türkiye or Syria BEFORE the earthquake as they will be on the ground and already have local partnerships and networks to carry out the relief operations.
Charities should have been approved by the Turkish government to either operate independently on their soil or partner with a reputable local relief charity. The charity you choose will be the trustee you appoint to support the victims and it is a responsibility as well as a sacred trust (Amanah).
- Focus on Relief Efforts: Look for charities that focus on providing immediate relief to those affected by the natural disaster, such as food, shelter, and medical assistance. These organizations would have the resources, experience and specialization necessary to quickly provide aid and that best matches the need on the ground. For example, earthquakes typically have complex medical needs like broken and crushed bones. Doctors Without Borders//Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has the best track record in disaster responses like these. You may also support rescue operations of the people trapped under the rubble, which are crucial in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake - organizations like the White Helmets, with the help of trained local professionals, engage in such rescue efforts.
- Joint partnerships of large Canadian charities are better to support. In disaster response, which is distinctly different from development work, global NGOs have the logistics to respond quickly than smaller, volunteer, local Canadian charities simply don't have. For example, Humanitarian Coalition brings 12 Canadian international aid agencies together in times of disaster. With a combined presence in 140 countries, they are uniquely placed to respond fast to large-scale disasters or smaller, under-reported disasters.
- Check for Overhead Costs: Although the overhead cost, i.e., how much a charity spends in marketing, fundraising, management, and administration vs programming is a debated topic in the non-profit sector and the connection between this metric and a charity’s effectiveness appears to be tenuous, it is a good starting point to determine financial effectiveness and accountability. Ask community groups, mosques, and non-profit organizations – that do not have a presence in Türkiye but help collect donations from the community – if 100% of your donation gets transferred to the lead charity. Ensure they don’t hold on to a percentage of your donation as administrative or fundraising costs before transferring it to support the victims of the earthquake. Such indirect overhead costs can significantly reduce the impact of your donation and minimize the scale of your sincere, lofty intentions.
- Cash donations are better than In-kind gifts. Although the images of survivors suffering in the winter magnify the need of in-kind donations such as jackets, blankets, tents, etc, please do not donate them as it is costly to store, sort, safekeep, and airlift such heavy volumes of material gifts to disaster zones and then locally transport them using damaged roads and infrastructures. Past disaster relief experience tells us these in-kind gifts do not reach the people that need them the most. Donations through the charities' websites are the best, or reputable payment platforms like CanadaHelps or Paypal. Make a one-time donation, rather than monthly, so that the items required by survivors to weather the cold temperatures can be locally sourced and delivered without the long delays associated with bringing donated items from overseas which also increases the carbon footprint in the environment.
- Discourage disaster-tourism. As much as celebrities, faith leaders, and social media influencers can provide moral support to the survivors and mobilize their followers for their cause, as a donor, avoid supporting disaster tourism with your philanthropy.
Relief experts warn foreigners from setting foot in disaster zones unless they are trained professionals like emergency medical physicians, trauma specialists, orthopedic doctors, humanitarian aid workers, etc., who are essential to speed up the recovery and rebuilding process. Travels to Türkiye and Syria by other individuals, be it a celebrity, faith leader or social media influencer, should be discouraged. Look out for charities who capitalize on the helplessness of the situation on the ground to gain photo-op opportunities. Do not let your valuable donations be used at the expense of the dignity of the victims and survivors.
By taking these factors into account, you can ensure that your donation makes a meaningful difference in the lives of those affected by natural disasters.
Charity Intelligence Canada: Generosity alone is not enough. One must always ask if our giving did the most good possible.
We don't need to give more money for disaster aid to be more effective, we just need to give better.
Muneeb Nasir is the Chair of the Olive Tree Foundation, a Canadian public foundation (Waqf), the Executive Director of the Cordoba Centre for Civic Engagement and Leadership, and the Managing Editor of the online Canadian Muslim Journal, IQRA.ca.
Irshad Osman is an Imam by training and a fundraising consultant by profession who holds a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) designation. He has worked with local and international charities raising funds to support human development and disaster relief work.