Disaster Relief: How to Assist from a Distance

You may be following the news of recent natural disasters from thousands of miles away, wondering what you can possibly do to help. If so, rest assured that the effectiveness of your charitable donations doesn’t necessarily decrease with distance.

A large number of charities and relief organizations are helping victims of Hurricane Maria in the Caribbean, as well as earthquake victims in Mexico. The list includes some of the most respected, highest rated groups in philanthropy, such as:

Whether it’s on Main Street or beyond the mainland, the combination of generosity and effective charitable organizations can make a difference in people’s lives. But if you have questions about the process of donating to groups doing good work far afield, we have some answers.

Is international disaster relief tax deductible?

It largely depends on the nationality of the groups rather than the nationality of the people they’re helping.

Many of the nonprofit groups channeling your charity into disaster relief are based in the United States and meet Internal Revenue Service requirements for tax-deductible donations. In the case of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — both U.S. territories — your donations to charities located there should be tax-deductible as long as they meet those same IRS requirements.

Although charitable organizations based in foreign countries generally don’t qualify for deductions, certain Mexican, Canadian, and Israeli charities do.

How do I check a group’s tax-exempt status?

That information should be readily available on the group’s website or in its literature. Signs to look for include:

  • Registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization
  • A statement specifying that donations are tax-deductible
  • An EIN (Employer Identification Number) assigned by the IRS

Also, you can check directly with the IRS using its Exempt Organizations Select Check Tool.

How do I know if a charity is legitimate?

Even though disasters can create opportunities for scams, you have a number of safeguards on your side.

The internet has made it easier for potential donors to do their own detective work and donate safely. You can also check an organization’s credentials with watchdog agencies such as Charity Navigator and GiveWell.

Can I donate credit card rewards to charity?

Many credit card issuers allow you to donate points, miles, and cash back to charity. In some cases, an issuer may offer bonus rewards in exchange for donating to disaster relief.

If you want to donate your credit card rewards, be aware of the card issuer’s guidelines and the intended charity’s guidelines. For example, the value of your points may vary when you convert them to donations.

Also, remember that the IRS typically doesn’t consider such donations tax-deductible. To get the tax benefit in this situation, you would probably need to redeem cash back rewards for a cash payout and then donate that payout to the charity of your choice.

Your support matters, no matter the destination

People in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida still need help with hurricane relief, as do victims of the recent California wildfires. Locations around the country and the world need assistance at any given time. Whether you choose to provide help, and how, is entirely up to you. Just remember that your generosity can cross oceans and span continents, and make a real difference.