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Digital-age charity

Charity in the digital age moves as fast as anything else. Text a message to a number, and you can instantly send aid to devastated Haiti.

But charity in the digital age also holds as many dangers as any age-old scam, requiring the same vigilance to ensure donations go where they are intended.

“We know that whenever something new comes up, there will be people of ill will out there thinking of ways to take advantage of human generosity,” H. Art Taylor, president and chief operation officer of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, told The Wall Street Journal.

Questions already are being raised, in fact, about Yele Haiti, the organization sponsored by Haitian music star Wyclef Jean, which has raised $1 million for earthquake relief from text-messaged donations. The Smoking Gun, a blog site, reported that Yele Haiti was established in 1998, but the first tax returns weren’t filed until last August. They revealed that proceeds from the charity were paid to the singer’s production company, including a $100,000 payment to his recording studio for his performance at a benefit concert.

If a text message is your preferred method of giving, the American Red Cross is a better choice. As of Monday, the agency had received $22 million in text donations, about a fifth of the total $112 million collected so far.

Red Cross donors send the word “Haiti” to the number 90999, which automatically adds a $10 fee to a person’s phone bill. Wireless companies said they are waiving text-messaging fees for the relief effort. Verizon announced Monday that it sent about $3 million in text-message pledges to the American Red Cross. Normally, wireless companies don’t send money to a charity until donors pay their phone bills, a process that can take a few months.

With any charity, some homework is helpful in ensuring the greatest percentage of a donation goes directly to those who need it. The American Red Cross is one of the top-rated charities on a list compiled by the American Institute of Philanthropy. The agency receives a grade of “A-” from the charity watchdog. Three agencies – International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) – are the only “A+” organizations.

Charity Navigator, another watchdog organization, gives three- and four-star ratings to the best charities based on the percentage of donations that go directly to relief – versus administrative and fundraising expenses – and organizational capacity.

Northeast Indiana residents who want to support relief efforts with a local flavor might consider Mission of Hope: Haiti. Its director and president both are Huntington University graduates.

It’s difficult to watch news coverage of the disaster response without feeling a need to act quickly, but the coverage also reveals the tremendous hurdles in delivering aid.

The immediate gratification of giving by text message might be attractive, but donors should remember that the need will continue for months and years to come.