How to Help Tornado Victims (Safely)

Help is needed, and getting it there quickly matters, but make sure your well-intentioned charity doesn’t end up in the wrong pockets.

Photo of Missy Hendrickson salvaging items from her apartment after it was destroyed by a tornado late Friday evening on December 12, 2021 in Mayfield, Kentucky.
Missy Hendrickson salvages items from her apartment after it was destroyed by a tornado late Friday evening on December 12, 2021 in Mayfield, Kentucky.
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

As news of the tornadoes that devastated communities in Kentucky and five other states reverberates across the U.S., many Americans will feel compelled to help. But as is the case with other high-profile disasters, it’s important to make sure that your donations go where they’re needed, rather than to opportunistic scammers.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has announced the creation of a new state-wide relief effort, Team Western Kentucky Relief Fund, www.teamwkyrelieffund.ky.gov (opens in new tab). Private charities are also targeting Kentucky directly: United Way Kentucky has a designated fund, at https://www.uwky.org/tornado (opens in new tab). But remember that other states (Tennessee, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi were affected, too.) International relief organization CARE has will go directly to Kentucky tornado victims.

How to Check Charities

As you consider other recipients, remember to check reviews on watchdog websites, such as Charity Navigator (opens in new tab) and the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (Give.org (opens in new tab)). You can also check out GuideStar, which presents a snapshot, including balance-sheet data, program descriptions and links to financial documents. On GuideStar, charities are asked to answer five questions to assess their potential impact and five questions about board oversight and performance.

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Be wary of solicitations that come to you via email or text—some may be phishing scams or other types of fraud. If you see a contact number listed on a solicitation, check if it matches what’s on the charity’s website. You can also use the BBB’s scam tracker system to check out charities. Type in “charity” in the keyword search bar and you’ll see an index of the most recently reported scams via zip code.

Responding to Crowdfunding Requests

Natural disasters often fuel a surge of crowdfunding campaigns from individuals and businesses seeking help to rebuild. While some are legitimate, others are scams. GoFundMe guarantees that funds will go to the beneficiary, not the campaign organizer, and will refund up to $1,000 to donors if there is evidence of misuse. However, the cause itself could be fake, so always cross check the information across various platforms. Keep in mind, too, that donations to GoFundMe and other crowdfunding are usually not tax-deductible.

Taking a Tax Break for a Charitable Donation

If you donate to a tax-deductible charitable organization before year-end, you may be able to deduct part of your contribution on your 2021 tax return, even if you don’t itemize. For the 2021 tax year, people who take the standard deduction can deduct up to $300 of cash donations to charity. The $300 amount is per person, so if you’re married, you can deduct a total of $600 on your 2021 tax return. For donations under $250, you need a bank record, such as a cancelled check or credit card statement. For donations that exceed $250, you should obtain a written acknowledgement from the charity that shows the date of the contribution, the amount, and states whether you receive you received any goods or services in exchange for your donation.

If you still itemize, you can deduct charitable contributions made before year-end on Schedule A of your 2021 tax return. As was the case in 2020, itemizers can deduct donations of up to 100% of their adjusted gross income. Ordinarily, the cut-off is 60%, but that limit was removed for the 2020 and 2021 tax years (although there's still a 100%-of-AGI limit on all charitable contributions). Donations to donor-advised funds aren’t eligible for the higher limits.

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.