How to Donate Money During International Emergencies So It Really Helps

The city of Aleppo is barely standing after a six-year war forced 4.8 million people to flee the country, according to U.N. estimates. . George Ourfalian/AFP/Getty Images

You've seen the devastating images coming out of Aleppo, Syria, that show a city in ruins, with buildings destroyed and bloodied civilians fleeing their war-torn homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Or perhaps you were emotionally moved by the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million without homes.

Whether a war-torn region or a natural disaster, we often feel compelled to help the victims of international disasters, even from thousands of miles away. But how can we be sure the money or supplies we donate will go to the people who need it most? Here are three ways.

1. Consider a local charity over an international one. Grassroots and community organizations that are on the ground in the affected region likely have a more accurate picture of immediate needs than an international charity. For example, look for a local medical organization such as the Syrian American Medical Society, which provides financial support to hospitals and clinics in Syria, which have been heavily bombed and don't have the supplies or equipment to treat wounded civilians.

Or look for a local rescue organization. Quartz points to the White Helmets, a Syrian civil group credited with saving the lives of 70,000 civilians, which uses donations to buy safety goggles, helmets, ropes and defibrillators for rescuers.

Lastly, "local" doesn't necessarily mean in the area where the disaster occurred. There may be a charity near where you live that may be a smart option. Maybe you live in or a near an area with a large population of refugees. Do they have an organization you can contribute to? They may be sending money and supplies to family still in their home country, or maybe they need help as they adjust to their new lives. Quartz cites one example: "Karam Foundation, a non-profit founded in Chicago in 2007, not only supports the evacuated families from Aleppo but also develops innovative education programs for Syrian refugee youth."

Haiti earthquake 2010
The 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.5 million without homes. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

2. Then again, sometimes you have to go big. Some small charities rely on sponsorship from larger ones. So by donating to a larger charity, you trust that they will use their best judgment and distribute your donation to those smaller charities when they need it. For example, Oxfam is a confederation of 17 national organizations working in 90 countries with thousands of local partner organizations. They tackle a range of issues from health to education to emergency response to peace and security. If you're unsure about giving to a local charity — especially if they aren't registered in the U.S., and many aren't — donating to a trusted international charitable organization like Oxfam may be the solution.

3. Think about 'effective altruism.' According to The Centre for Effective Altruism in England and Wales, effective altruism is "about answering one simple question: how can we use our resources to help others the most?" You answer to that question through careful analysis can help make your money do the most good. Effective altruism weighs the number of lives you will save with your donation, so following this philosophy means prioritizing programs that will help the sick or give the poor access to food, clean water and medicine over causes such as arts or education. While you may disagree with that philosophy generally, in the context of helping during international emergencies, the concept has merit.

As world-renowned Australian ethicist and author Peter Singer told Forbes:

It’s a question of what do you get for the money. Think of it this way: Suppose you have $1,000 to give away. Would that make a dramatic difference to the life of an American family of four in poverty, making about $23,000 a year? Not really. That’s roughly what they get every two weeks. But for a family in poverty living on less than $1,000 a year, giving them your $1,000 is their entire year’s income and makes a huge difference to their well-being.