As we’ve all become increasingly aware of the thousands of migrant children separated from their families and detained at the US border, many people have understandably had the urge to try to help. But how can you be sure that online campaign you’re clicking “donate” on is legitimate?
“Unfortunately, in times of need, there are individuals who take advantage of the issue and the generosity of individuals looking to get involved,” said Larry Lieberman, the chief operating officer of Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog group, in an email.
There are several steps you can take to ensure the fundraiser you’re donating to is actually helping. First, figure out what it is you want your money to do. In the case of children detained at the border, funds could be used to pay for legal assistance for families, or for translators to help those who don’t speak Spanish or English to navigate the complicated immigration system. Other groups might use the money to lobby Congress to pass legislation that prohibits separating children from their families.
Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit charity watchdog, told me you can vet an individual organization by making sure it’s a registered 501 (c) (3) charity and looking up its ratings and Form 990, which breaks down how the organization uses its money. He also said to get specific in your research and finding out what the organization does: does it have people physically at detention centers right now connecting families with legal help, or is it more of an administrative organization?
The second step is to look at who is collecting the funds, Lieberman said. The best option is if the nonprofit is organizing the fundraiser directly, or if the platform is linked to the charity itself.
“If the campaign is from someone not working with or directly involved in helping those affected, there is a higher potential for scam than usual,” Lieberman wrote.
As an example, let’s vet one viral Facebook campaign that has garnered a lot of attention. Launched by Silicon Valley power couple Charlotte and Dave Willner, the fundraiser to benefit the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES)—a Texas-based nonprofit that provides free legal services for immigrants—has brought in over $5 million. (Disclosure: I have donated personal funds to this specific campaign.) At some points over the last few days, donations have been rolling in at a rate of $4,000 a minute, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg himself chipped in to the campaign.
There are no fees collected when raising money for a nonprofit on the social media platform, according to Facebook, and if it’s a charity that’s registered with Facebook Payments—like RAICES is—then the donations will be paid out within 14 days of the fundraiser ending. RAICES is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and has already publicly commented on this particular campaign and what it plans to do with the donations.
"We've rapidly reached out to other organizations doing complementary work in Texas to set up a network to cover all the federal courts, develop a database with all separated families, and a pro bono referral network to ensure representation for every family," Jenny Hixon, RAICES’s director of outreach, education and development, told USA Today. "This feels outrageously ambitious, but we kind of feel like this is the moment to do the big things."
Borochoff said that this particular campaign is unlikely to be problematic because of the widespread attention on it.
“It would be such a black eye to Facebook if they were to mishandle this,” Borochoff told me over the phone. “But if there’s ever any doubt, it’s always better to donate directly to the organization.”
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