UPDATE: Japan has requested what looks to be limited foreign aid. So far, that call still seems to exclude several nonprofit aid groups. UPDATE 2: The ARC now looks to be involved at some capacity, according to the US Airforce.
UPDATE 3: You can donate directly to the Japanese Red Cross, who is bearing the brunt of disaster response, by going here (google.org). If you want to support the Red Cross' efforts in Japan, this is the most definite way to give.
UPDATE 4: Here's the most definitive list we've seen thus far regarding American nonprofits and their level of involvement in Japan.
Twitter is full of anxious donors, retweeting to text REDCROSS to 90999 to make $10 donation. Now, there's nothing wrong with this donation: The American Red Cross is a superb organization. But Japan hasn't actually asked them for help just yet.
In other words, you may think your money is helping disaster relief in Japan. But from the press releases we've seen today, no US-based nonprofits are actually deploying to Japan yet.
The diction is almost universal across some of the biggest, most respected relief organizations in the world. Just take a look at The American Red Cross' last press release:
"The American Red Cross stands ready and willing to assist following a magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami that affected other countries in the Pacific region...To date, the Red Cross has not received any requests for blood from the Japanese Red Cross, the Japanese government or the U.S. State Department."
(Highlights added for emphasis.)
So everyone who's texting to donate to the Red Cross isn't actually reaching Japan. Not yet. And they might not—ever.
This example isn't intended to single out The American Red Cross. From what we can tell, every major relief organization with an American chapter is doing the same thing: raising funds for if and when they're deployed to Japan or anywhere else affected by the day's events. Doctors Without Borders may be an exception, as they've sent a scouting crew ahead.
We were unable to reach The American Red Cross or a few other organizations for comment, but we did talk to Charity Navigator about the ordeal, one of the leading authorities on nonprofits—particularly on how nonprofits are spending their money.
They confirmed, it doesn't appear that Japan has asked anyone for outside assistance just yet. And we have no way of knowing if they'll actually need it.
"Every disaster is different. It's too early to tell [if Japan needs outside assistance]," explained Charity Navigator VP Sandra Miniutti. "Waiting 24-36 hours to donate wouldn't be a bad thing,"
So why is everyone asking for money? Natural disasters bring in donations. Hurricane Katrina brought $3.3 billion to date. Haiti has brought in $1.4 billion so far. And when is the best time to ask someone for money? When he can see floods, fires and other devastation on TV.
If you donate today, that organization could still provide relief a week, a month or a year (or more) down the line. That delay isn't necessarily a bad thing, either.
"I think, often times, donors rush to help and the pressure is for the charities to react quickly," says Miniutti. "It is important to wait and allow the charity effective time to develop a plan...middle to long term development work..."
No one is telling you not to donate—your $10 or $50 will most likely help somewhere else that totally needs it if it doesn't end up in Japan.
It's just important to know, when you're passionately sending dollars over text messages, where those dollars actually go. All of us want to help Japan right now. But the sad fact of the matter is, we may not be able to.
For a complete list of excellent nonprofits who have pre-committed assistance to Japan, go here.
Mark Wilson runs a daily donation site called Philanthroper.