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Most of us have been flooded over the last several weeks with grave stories and haunting pictures of the devastation caused by the recent earthquakes in Haiti. Naturally, many of us want to help where we can with the relief efforts, but have been equally overwhelmed with the various opportunities to contribute. With news of charities, such as Haitian-native musician Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti foundation, being under scrutiny for misappropriation of funds, it is hard to know where your gifts will be most efficiently used to help those in need.

In the hopes of spreading the word about how to gift more effectively and how to leverage your contributions, we put together a few basic ideas this week to help you make that decision a little easier.

Choose How You Want to Help

The first step is to decide how you’d like to help. This could be giving to charities specializing in a range of activities from immediate relief such as water and food, longer term rebuilding and support efforts or to charities already on the ground supporting the impoverished nation in other ways. It is best to give cash or marketable assets whenever possible. Experts claim that, while many want to box up gifts of food and water, giving this way is often very inefficient and rarely serves its intended purpose. If you do prefer to contribute this way, give through an organization, such as Matthew 25 Ministries here in Cincinnati, that serve as a mass collection point for these kind of gifts and can then do a more targeted airlift of those good to the areas that need them most.

Choose Which Organization Best Suits Your Intentions

Once you have a purpose in place for your gift, the next step is doing some investigating about the various organizations that can help meet that goal. A great place to start your research is https://www.charitynavigator.org/, an organization that evaluates how well charities manage their costs and provides other tools to help contributors make educated decisions. Even when charities have the best intentions for every dollar donated, it is often difficult to keep administrative expenses in line. If you visit their homepage now, the first link that appears is a list of various organizations that are relevant to Haitian relief efforts.

Leveraging Your Gift

There are more ways than ever to leverage your gifting efforts. Many rewards programs are allowing members to transform their points into cash for the relief efforts. For example, Marriott is giving $25 to the Red Cross for every 10,000 points donated. AARP recently announced that they would match contributions dollar for dollar up to $500,000 (that level has since been reached, but they are still collecting donations). If employed, your employer may match gifts as well.

Beyond those efforts, consider social networking. If you give, provide a link to the charity of your choice or details on how to get more information on your Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter page. While some misconstrue this as a sign of vanity, charitable groups strongly encourage this practice as it really is a tremendous tool to raise both funds and awareness about their cause.

In turn, if you see posts on these sites about various fundraising efforts, feel free to give, but be sure to do a little investigating on your own first to make sure they are legitimate.

Tax Benefits

Make sure you take advantage of any and all potential benefits related to giving. Congress recently passed a law allowing taxpayers to write off charitable donations to the Haiti earthquake on their 2009 Tax returns as opposed to waiting to deduct on their 2010 returns. This was done in an effort to encourage more donations and was unanimously approved in both the House and the Senate.

Be Cautious

As mentioned above, it’s important to make sure that you’re giving to who you think you’re giving to. Avoid telemarketers asking for a gift. Avoid e-mail solicitations, especially those that appear to come from an individual victim. When in doubt, hang up or log off and take the time to check out the charity on your own and make a direct gift.

Keeping these simple steps in mind, you’re well on your way to making an educated contribution that will have the maximum impact possible with every dollar contributed.

By Chip Workman, CFP