The devastating earthquake in Haiti last week is spurring relief efforts from countries around the world, but the U.S. is playing a key role in providing both help and security, along with much-needed funds.

U.S. taxpayers have been stepping forward to provide money to charities like the American Red Cross and Unicef, raising tens of millions of dollars through text messages alone. Now Congress is considering legislation that would allow U.S. taxpayers to deduct their Haiti donations this year instead of waiting until next year (see Lawmakers Propose Bill to Speed Haiti Donations).

It is encouraging that a bipartisan group of lawmakers has gotten behind the bill, ranging across the ideological spectrum, from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va. Congress passed similar legislation in January 2005 to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. There’s a good chance that Congress can do it again, assuming that it doesn’t dissolve into further partisan rancor, especially given the tenuous status of health care reform legislation.

CPAs are also stepping up with their donations. No doubt many accountants and accounting firms are already making donations to help with earthquake relief efforts, and the AICPA is encouraging more of them to open their wallets and purses. The Institute is accepting donations from CPA members to its disaster relief fund, CPAs in Support of America Fund Inc., and AICPA president and CEO Barry Melancon is encouraging CPAs to give generously (see AICPA Urges Help for Haiti Earthquake Victims).

Accountants can play a role in helping their clients with not only tax deductions in the wake of the earthquake, but also in choosing reliable charities. There have already been some controversies in this area, with Haitian-born singer Wyclef Jean facing questions over the tax returns and expenditures of his charitable foundation Yele Haiti. However, Jean has vigorously defended his foundation’s work, both in a video he posted to YouTube over the weekend and in an emotional press conference Tuesday. Despite the questions, Jean’s charity has done good work on behalf of Haiti relief long before the earthquake, and he has been an effective advocate on behalf of Haitians. Undoubtedly he will be involved in continuing to raise funds on behalf of earthquake victims with his fellow musicians.

Still, there have already been instances of phony Haiti charities popping up on Facebook and in e-mail spam. The AICPA is advising accountants to use charity watchdog services like GuideStar to assess the track record of various nonprofits on behalf of clients. Other reliable guides include Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau.

No charity is perfect, though, and we have already seen a host of missed opportunities in the Haitian relief effort so far. But as some of the major nonprofits try to coordinate their efforts better with the U.S. government, the United Nations, the Haitian government, and each other, they have been trying to learn from past mistakes in the wake of disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Now is the time when they and the people of Haiti need help the most, and accountants can help their clients find the best ways to donate wisely to save lives.

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