Humanitarian aid donations have skyrocketed in response to the war in Ukraine, but officials are warning of potential charitable giving scams that often prey on good intentions during times of crisis.
So, how can you be sure your donation will actually reach those who need it most?
Put simply, “proceed cautiously,” said Utah Department of Commerce spokesman Zach Whitney.
Scams are just “one of those things that we see all the time, whenever there’s a global event,” he said. “That’s when scammers come out of the woodwork to try and take advantage of that situation.”
The department issued a press release last week to help Utahns navigate the charitable giving landscape and avoid falling victim to scams.
Even a “few minutes of research can increase your trust” in a charitable organization, the department said, especially if you use the Division of Consumer Protection’s searchable database. The database tracks all registered charities and reports the percentage of the funds collected that are used directly for the intended cause.
Other nonprofits do their own rating of charities to help the public make informed choices. Charity Navigator is a nonprofit evaluator that provides a free service and has compiled a list of 33 highly rated organizations that are providing a variety of services to Ukrainian refugees.
The site has seen close to a 100% increase in web traffic over the past 10 days, according to spokesman Kevin Scally, and some charities are seeing a 1,000% increase in donations through Charity Navigator’s platform compared to the same time last year.
With more than 2 million Ukrainians displaced to date, the demand for aid will likely continue to grow.
Scally said the interest in donating is “understandable. People are seeing other people and animals that are suffering and just wanting a way to help ... alleviate their own pain and the pain Ukraine is suffering.”
Tragedies like the one unfolding in Ukraine often spark strong emotional responses, Scally said, and people should “give with their heart, but also give with their head and do their due diligence.”
“We like to assume good intent,” he said, but there are some people willing to “pull on your heartstrings” to take advantage.
Even when giving to a reputable charity, Scally said it’s always best to donate through their official website or donation hotline. Social media posts asking for wire transfers, cryptocurrency or Venmo should be carefully vetted, and most organizations have a verified portal for accepting online payments, he said.
Potential givers should never feel pressure to donate on the spot, Whitney said. Taking a day or two to look into an organization can help verify that they are transparent and accountable.
Which charity should I give to?
When in doubt, the Department of Commerce advised Utahns to consider donating to the Driven to Assist campaign, a fundraising effort launched by Gov. Spencer Cox and the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation.
Public donations to the Community Foundation of Utah will be matched up to $2 million, which will be given to trusted nonprofits to disburse to refugees in Romania, Poland and Moldova, according to Megan Connelly, the foundation’s community impact manager.
Community donations equaled $680,000 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Amanda Hansen with The Larry H. Miller Company, and they have received enough supplies to fill one-and-a-half semitrucks. Connelly said $390,000 comes from small donations.
Donation centers are accepting goods such as new children’s shoes, coats, hats, gloves and mittens, laundry detergent, diapers and feminine hygiene products through March 12, in locations across the Wasatch Front:
- Megaplex at Jordan Commons, 9295 S. State, Sandy.
- Megaplex at Thanksgiving Point, 2935 N. Thanksgiving Way, Lehi.
- Megaplex at Legacy Crossing, 1075 West Legacy Crossing Blvd., Centerville.
- Smith’s Ballpark, 77 W. 1300 South, Salt Lake City (front lobby, east of home plate gates).
- Vivint Arena, 301 South Temple, Salt Lake City (main east entry atrium).
- Rio Tinto Stadium, 9256 State St., Sandy (Real Salt Lake team store).
- The Hub Info Studio, 6172 W. Lake Ave., South Jordan.
Given the evolving nature of the crisis in Ukraine, Connelly said the funds aren’t earmarked for specific causes yet in order to remain flexible and available for those with the greatest need.
“We wanted to be as agile and nimble to respond to the immediate needs that these communities are facing,” she said.
Should I donate money or supplies?
After determining a worthy organization, there is still the question of how to get the most bang for your buck. Scally said he doesn’t want to discourage giving of any kind, but acknowledged that not all donations are created equal.
Purchasing supplies to donate comes with the added cost of shipping them from Utah to Poland. In many cases, it may be more efficient to make a monetary donation to an organization like Direct Relief or Americares to purchase the same supplies from somewhere in Europe, Scally said.
“It’s not the same thing (as) dropping off your blanket or dropping off your canned food or something along those lines, but the same money that you might spend on those items could maybe be used (for) something that’s a little bit more impactful,” he said.
If you do donate supplies, he said, try to find out what the refugees themselves are asking for, because it’s not always what you might expect.
It’s a “natural thing” for people to “want to give what they have on hand,” but Scally said large organizations often have people on the ground to communicate the needs to the general public.
“I think a big part of this is having constituent feedback,” he said. “And what I mean by that is that the beneficiaries are actually dictating what it is they need. It’s not the donor saying, ‘Oh, they really need blankets ... I’m going to send this to them,’ without actually getting that direction from the beneficiaries.”
Grassroots crowdfunding campaigns can sometimes provide insights, especially if the organizer has close ties to friends or family members in Ukraine. Crowdfunding efforts can be more difficult to verify though, so Scally recommended giving to personal fundraisers organized by someone you know and can trust.
Other tips for protecting your donations
The Utah Department of Commerce recommends doing the following to make sure donations will be used for a legitimate charitable cause:
- Give wisely by researching before you give. Check the Division of Consumer Protection’s website before you give to see if a charity is registered. Do some research online.
- Approach crowdfunding efforts cautiously, including those soliciting funds through personal accounts (Venmo, PayPal, Zellie, etc.). Givers should ask questions and investigate organizations and stories before giving money.
- Never feel pressured to give on the spot. You can always give after you do your homework.
- Get it in writing. Ask for a receipt showing the amount of your contribution and the name and contact information of the person or organization you contributed to.
- Need help or spot something concerning? Contact the Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601.