Turkey-Syria Earthquake: Want to Help? Vet Charities Before You Donate

More than 41,000 people are dead and thousands more are seriously injured after one of the strongest earthquakes recorded in the area hit Turkey and Syria.

Dori Zinn Contributing Writer
Dori Zinn loves helping people learn and understand money. She's been covering personal finance for a decade and her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and more.
Marcos Cabello
Based in Boston, Marcos Cabello has been a personal finance reporter for NextAdvisor and CNET. Marcos has covered cryptocurrency, investing, banking, and the US economy, among other personal finance subjects. If you don't find Marcos behind his computer screen, you'll probably find him behind another screen, playing the newest Nintendo Switch title, streaming the latest TV show or reading a book on his Kindle.
Nina Raemont Writer
A recent graduate of the University of Minnesota, Nina started at CNET writing breaking news stories before shifting to covering Security Security and other government benefit programs. In her spare time, she's in her kitchen, trying a new baking recipe.
Dori Zinn
Marcos Cabello
Nina Raemont
5 min read
Damaged buildings after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hits Turkey and Syria.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Feb. 7 declared a three-month state of emergency for the 10 affected provinces of the country. Seen here is the devastation in Hatay, Turkey.

Getty Images

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6, leaving more than 41,000 people dead and thousands more critically injured in one of the strongest earthquakes recorded in the area. The earthquake and its aftershocks rattled through southern Turkey and northern Syria. 

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Feb. 7 declared a three-month state of emergency for the 10 affected provinces of the country. The only crossing between Syria and Turkey that's approved by the UN for aid transportation is closed due to earthquake damage, The New York Times reported. On top of that, Syria is experiencing a civil war, a humanitarian crisis and government sanctions, which challenge the ways in which it can receive aid from other countries during times of need. 

As international humanitarian groups formulate their plans to help people in Turkey and Syria, many in the US and other countries are already searching for ways to help. In the short term, it may be safest to go with a household name -- such as UNICEF -- that already has an international infrastructure in place. That noted, groups on the ground in Syria and Turkey may be able to channel a donation more efficiently than those working remotely. No matter which group you choose to support, you'll want to make sure your charitable donation makes an impact. 

Here are the best ways to vet a charity before you donate.

Read more: 7 Ways to Give to Charity Without Even Trying

Make sure the charity's mission aligns with yours

If you want to see what a nonprofit's goals are, check its mission. A mission statement tells you the organization's purpose for existing and plans to work toward a bigger goal. 

"If it's unclear how an organization is delivering on its mission, that could be cause for alarm," says Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer at Charity Navigator. "Do they have a proven track record for making an impact? This should be very apparent on the organization's website or in their marketing materials."

Evaluating a charity means making sure its mission is in line with your values. Most charities have a mission statement on their websites or printed on brochures. If you found an interesting charity through social media, these are usually in the About section or the profile summary.

Look for financial efficiency

Public charities are registered with the US government as 501(c)3 nonprofits -- that means the majority of donations and income are diverted to the organization's mission and administration, and not employees or private individuals. It also means donations to the organization are tax-deductible and annual reports are published publicly. 

Operating within a budget is important for any organization -- charities included. The first step in vetting a charity is reviewing fundraising expenses and administrative costs. The more money that's allocated towards administration costs means less money goes to programs and services. Look for charities that have a low percentage of revenue going to administrative costs. 

"We recommend that at least 70% should be allocated toward programs," Scally says. "Anything less and your donation isn't being stewarded properly."

You can check an organization's annual report to see where its money goes. Many post this publicly on their websites or you can use GuideStar to find the details. 

Look for results

A reputable charity will be able to point to examples of work it's done, goals that have been met and changes it has advanced. 

Word of mouth can be an indicator, too. GreatNonprofits uses a version of customer reviews to show what people are saying about charities. This site features 1.7 million charities and more than 36,000 testimonials from people who have donated to -- and been helped by -- charitable organizations. 

"As philanthropy is an extremely personal process, many donors find organizations through personal experiences or recommendations from family and friends," Scally says. "The important thing is doing your research and finding an effective organization that aligns with your passions."

Evaluate transparency

Look for the groups that report back to you on their progress. Transparency is important. If a charity doesn't want to share what it's doing, that's a big red flag. 

Charity Navigator is a good resource for assessing a nonprofit's transparency. The site has information about whether a charity submits financial audits by an independent accountant, has a conflict of interest policy, document board meeting minutes and how much of its money goes towards programming compared to other expenses. For instance, Feeding America allocates 96% of its program expenses to food procurement.

Read more: Use This App to Donate Money to a Cause, Even If You're on a Budget

Check the leadership

Though volunteers and staff professionals can make a charity shine, the best-run organizations have great people at the top. Do a bit of research about a charity's executives -- how long they've been involved in the cause, previous nonprofit work, other positions they've held at the current organization and overall years of experience. If the charity doesn't have any staff information available or the information on leadership is sparse, that should give you pause.

Compensation is important, too. Look at what the executive leadership earns -- not just in salary but also in benefits, retirement package, bonuses and more. The IRS requires charities to report details about the CEO and the top five highest-paid employees. You can also find this on Charity Navigator. 

Beware of red flags 

As always, be careful about giving out your financial information -- whether on the internet, over the phone or in person. Pay close attention to how an alleged charity handles donations. The safest way to donate is to use a credit card on a secure website. Never give personal and financial details over the phone. If a charity asks for money through a wire transfer, prepaid debit card or gift card -- that's a huge red flag. 

More resources for vetting a charity

  • Charity Navigator: Evaluates organizations across broad criteria including IRS filings, revenue, how long it's been operating, fundraising and administrative expenses. 
  • GreatNonprofits: Users review nonprofits on GreatNonprofits, giving you the chance to see how charities have helped (or hurt) the community it serves. Browse by category or location or search for the charity by name.
  • GuideStar: Find out a charity's data and information -- including IRS documents and annual reports -- when you search through GuideStar. 
  • CharityWatch: This charity watchdog lets you sort by popularity, compensation and other metrics. It also includes information on "red flags" such as a history of unethical practices, wasteful spending or investigations into the organization.